Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored
in a literary work.
The Primacy of Fate - The direction and destination
of Aeneas's course are preordained, and his various sufferings and
glories in battle and at sea over the course of the epic merely postpone
this unchangeable destiny. The power of fate stands above the power
of the gods in the hierarchy of supernatural forces. Often it is associated
with the will of Jupiter, the most powerful of the Olympians. Because
Jupiter's will trumps the wills of all others, the interference in
Aeneas's life by the lesser gods, who strive to advance their personal
interests as much as they can within the contours of the larger destiny,
do not really affect the overall outcome of events.
The development of individual characters in the epic is apparent in
the readiness and resistance with which they meet the directives of
fate. Juno and Turnus both fight destiny every step of the way, and
so the epic's final resolution involves a transformation in each of
them, as a result of which they resign themselves to fate and allow
the story, at last, to arrive at its destined end. Dido desires Aeneas,
whom fate denies her, and her desire consumes her. Aeneas preserves
his sanity, as well as his own life and those of his men, by subordinating
his own anxieties and desires to the demands of fate and the rules
of piety. Fate, to Virgil's Roman audience, is a divine, religious
principle that determines the course of history and has culminated
in the Roman Empire.
The Sufferings of Wanderers - The first half of the
Aeneid tells the story of the Trojans' wanderings as they make their
way from Troy to Italy. Ancient culture was oriented toward familial
loyalty and geographic origin, and stressed the idea that a homeland
is one's source of identity. Because homelessness implies instability
of both situation and identity, it is a form of suffering in and of
itself. But Virgil adds to the sufferings of the wandering Trojans
by putting them at the mercy of forces larger than themselves. On
the sea, their fleet buffeted by frequent storms, the Trojans must
repeatedly decide on a course of action in an uncertain world. The
Trojans also feel disoriented each time they land on an unknown shore
or learn where they are without knowing whether it is the place where
they belong. As an experience that, from the point of view of the
Trojans, is uncertain in every way, the long wanderings at sea serve
as a metaphor for the kind of wandering that is characteristic of
life in general. We and Virgil's Roman audience know what fate has
in store for the Trojans, but the wandering characters themselves
do not. Because these individual human beings are not always privy
to the larger picture of destiny, they are still vulnerable to fears,
surprises, desires, and unforeseen triumphs.
The Glory of Rome - Virgil wrote the Aeneid during
what is known as the Golden Age of the Roman Empire, under the auspices
of Rome's first emperor, Caesar Augustus. Virgil's purpose was to
write a myth of Rome's origins that would emphasize the grandeur and
legitimize the success of an empire that had conquered most of the
known world. The Aeneid steadily points toward this already realized
cultural pinnacle; Aeneas even justifies his settlement in Latium
in the same manner that the empire justified its settlement in numerous
other foreign territories. Virgil works backward, connecting the political
and social situation of his own day with the inherited tradition of
the Greek gods and heroes, to show the former as historically derived
from the latter. Order and good government triumph emphatically over
the Italian peoples, whose world prior to the Trojans' arrival is
characterized as a primitive existence of war, chaos, and emotional
irrationality. By contrast, the empire under Augustus was generally
a world of peace, order, and emotional stability.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices
that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes.
Prophecies and Predictions - Prophecy and prediction
take many forms in the Aeneid, including dreams, visitations from
the dead, mysterious signs and omens, and direct visitations of the
gods or their divine messengers. These windows onto the future orient
mortal characters toward fate as they try to glean, sometimes clearly
and sometimes dimly, what is to come. Virgil's audience, however,
hears these predictions with the advantage of hindsight, looking backward
to observe the realization of an already accomplished fate. As observers
who know about the future, the audience is in the same position as
the gods, and the tension between the audience's and the characters'
perspectives therefore emulates the difference between the position
of mortals and that of gods.
Founding a New City - The mission to build a new
city is an obsession for Aeneas and the Trojans. In Book II, Aeneas
relates the story of Troy's destruction to Dido, who is herself recently
displaced and in the process of founding a new city of her own. In
Book III, Virgil relates several attempts undertaken by the Trojans
to lay down the foundations for a city, all of which were thwarted
by ill omens or plague. Aeneas also frequently uses the image of the
realized city to inspire his people when their spirits flag. The walls,
foundation, or towers of a city stand for civilization and even order
itself, a remedy for the uncertainty, irrationality, and confusion
that result from wandering without a home.
Vengeance - Avenging a wrong, especially the death
of a loved one, is an important element of heroic culture and a pervasive
motif in the Aeneid. The most prominent instance of vengeance comes
in the final lines of the poem. Aeneas, having decided to spare Turnus,
changes his mind when reminded of the slain Pallas, whose belt Turnus
wears as a trophy. It would be considered dishonorable and disloyal
to allow Pallas's death go unpunished. Vengeance comes in other, perhaps
less noble, forms as well. Dido's suicide is at least partly an act
of revenge on Aeneas, and she curses him as one of her last acts.
The Harpies act out of vengefulness when they curse Aeneas for having
killed their livestock. Similarly, the struggles of the gods against
one another are likewise motivated by spite and revenge: the history
of bruised vanity, left over from Paris's judgment of Venus as the
fairest goddess, largely motivates Juno's aggressive behavior against
the Trojans and Venus, their divine protector.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent
abstract ideas or concepts.
Flames - Fire symbolizes both destruction and erotic
desire or love. With images of flames, Virgil connects the two. Paris's
desire for Helen eventually leads to the fires of the siege of Troy.
When Dido confesses her love for Aeneas to Anna, her sister, she begins,
“I recognize / the signs of the old flame, of old desire”
(IV.31–32). Dido also recalls her previous marriage in “the
thought of the torch and the bridal bed” (IV.25). Torches limit
the power of flames by controlling them, but the new love ignited
in Dido's heart is never regulated by the institution of marriage,
“the bridal bed.” The flames she feels do not keep her
warm but rather consume her mind. Virgil describes the way she dies
in the synonymous terms “enflamed and driven mad” (IV.965).
The Golden Bough - According to the Sibyl, the priestess
of Apollo, the golden bough is the symbol Aeneas must carry in order
to gain access to the underworld. It is unusual for mortals to be
allowed to visit the realm of the dead and then return to life. The
golden bough is therefore the sign of Aeneas's special privilege.
The Gates of War - The opening of these gates indicates
a declaration of war in a tradition that was still recognized even
in Virgil's own day. That it is Juno rather than a king or even Turnus
who opens the gates emphasizes the way immortal beings use mortals
to settle scores. The Gates of War thus symbolize the chaos of a world
in which divine force, often antagonistic to the health and welfare
of mortals, overpowers human will and desire.
The Trojan Hearth Gods - The hearth gods of Troy,
or penates as they are called in Latin, are mentioned repeatedly throughout
the epic. They are symbols of locality and ancestry, tribal gods associated
specifically with the city of Troy, who reside in the household hearth.
Aeneas gathers them up along with his family when he departs from
his devastated home, and they symbolize the continuity of Troy as
it is transplanted to a new physical location.
Weather - The gods use weather as a force to express
their will. The storm that Juno sends at the beginning of the epic
symbolizes her rage. Venus, on the other hand, shows her affection
for the Trojans by bidding the sea god, Neptune, to protect them.
In Book IV, Venus and Juno conspire to isolate Dido and Aeneas in
a cave by sending a storm to disrupt their hunting trip, symbolizing
the rupture of normal social codes as well. Greek and Roman mythology
has a tendency to make its symbols literal in this way—to connect
the seen (a storm, for example) with the unseen (divine will) causally