Essay: Fatal Violence in Virgil’s Aeneid

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  • Fatal Violence in Virgil’s Aeneid
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Virgil’s Aeneid is an epic tale that tells of the rise of Roman hero Aeneas and, like many such classics, is filled to the brim with brutality. From its inception to its final lines, the Aeneid develops as a story defined by significant episodes of injurious force and deadly violence that result in innumerable fatalities. However, it is seldom that such acts of violence are productive in realizing their intended outcomes or bearing effective results. As such, most acts of deadly violence in the Aeneid prove to be in vain as they fail to achieve their goals and instead tend to effect great tragedies as they unfold at the expense of story’s characters.

One of the earliest instances of deadly violence in the Aeneid is that afflicted by the Queen Dido of Carthage unto herself. Whereupon the spiteful goddess Juno conspires to further deter Aeneas from fulfilling the fate that would result in the destruction of her most beloved city, she dispatches Cupid to induce the queen to fall in love with Aeneas. Juno’s plan to stall Aeneas in Carthage is effective only until Mercury appears to warn him that he must soon resume his journey and Aeneas agrees to forgo his comfort in favor of destiny. However, Aeneas’s inability to relay the news of departure to his lover is not taken lightly by Dido, who decides rather to take her own life than to live with such heartbreak. For what she perceives as a betrayal, Dido curses Aeneas and calls upon the gods to “let / him suffer war and struggles with audacious / nations[,]… / beg aid and watch his people’s shameful slaughter[,]…fall / before his time[, and to]… hunt down / with hatred all his sons and race to come” (Virgil IV.848-859). She then thrusts herself onto a sword in a pyre and kills herself. Dido subjects herself to deadly violence at her own hands as an act of sacrifice to the gods in its grandest form. She intends that through her ultimate bloodshed and self-sacrifice the gods will hear her final pleas and punish Aeneas for the pain that he has caused her. Dido’s death initially succeeds in procuring the pity of Juno, who at once ends the queen’s suffering, but it ultimately fails to garner its intended momentum. While Aeneas does encounter war as the story proceeds, the majority of Dido’s curse dissipates as Aeneas’s fate proves to be immutable; he is destined to be succeeded by a fruitful lineage that will found a great empire, and neither the curses of Dido nor the vengeance of Juno are capable of altering that fate. Thus, the queen’s extreme act of deadly violence unto herself ultimately proves to be unproductive as it falls short of producing any intended or effective results. Aeneas’s fate remains unchanged by Dido’s fatal desperation, and thereby renders her self-imposed death futile.

Another instance of deadly violence in the Aeneid that culminates ineffectually is the midnight slaughter of several Latin soldiers by the Trojan warriors Nisus and Euryalus. In the midst of the conflict between Aeneas and Turnus over the hand of Princess Lavinia, Aeneas embarks for the city of Pallanteum to seek military assistance from King Evander. Turnus and his army take advantage of the leader’s absence and significantly threaten the fate of the Trojan army, which induces the brave Nisus and Euryalus to depart in search of Aeneas. When the two sneak away from the Trojan fortress, however, they cannot resist offing a few of the sleeping Latins as “the time invites” (IX.426). They proceed to engage in a fit of deadly, but rash, violence from which they vainly acquire such spoils as the helmet of the slain warrior Messapus. What initially seems like a clever victory for the Trojans on behalf of Nisus and Euryalus quickly backfires as “the helmet of the heedless / Euryalus betray[s] him, flashing back / moonlight across the shades of gleaming night. / That is enough to stop them” (IX. 497-500). They are spotted by Latin horsemen and it is not long before both are dead themselves and their heads mounted upon spears of the Latin soldiers. The matter worsens as the Latins become motivated to battle the Trojan army in retaliation, effectively infiltrating their fortress and slaughtering a great number of Trojan men. In effect, Nisus and Euryalus’s impetuous event of lethal violence against the unsuspecting enemies proves to be imprudent and extremely unproductive as the pair’s foolish impulse to stray from their original intent leads only to immense tragedy. Not only does the goal of warning Aeneas remain unfulfilled and thereby subjects the remainder of the Trojan army vulnerable to imminent attack, but the indiscretion of the duo’s brutality also results in the capture and slaughter of themselves and the great number of Trojan casualties during the battle that entails.

A broader example of unproductive violence present in the Aeneid is Turnus’s entire crusade against the Trojans. From nearly the first moment that Turnus encounters Aeneas in Latium, he is hostile and determined to incite a war against the hero. His anger and indignation fuelled by Furies at the will of the vindictive Juno, Turnus unnecessarily escalates a proprietary clash into a massive bloodshed between the opposing armies. Although Turnus initially contends that the goal of his war declaration against the Trojans is to win back from Aeneas his right to marry the princess Lavinia, his decision for violence even in its early stages is as unproductive as it is gratuitous. When an oracle prophesies that Lavinia should marry a foreigner rather than one of her own people, it is her father Latinus who concedes her hand in marriage to Aeneas in order to appease fate; yet futilely, Turnus wages deadly violence against the Trojans over a decision for which Aeneas is not even chiefly responsible. Moreover, Turnus’s imprudent decision to resort to brutality is protested by Latinus, but even the king relents as it becomes clear that “lust for the sword and war’s damnable madness / rag[e] in [Turnus] and—above all—anger” (VII.607-610). Turnus exercises his excessive hubris as he resolves to defeat Aeneas and demonstrate his own greatness; this, which comes to supersede Turnus’s primary goal as the conflict evolves, is manifested in the particular case of Turnus’s ruthless murder of Pallas. Turnus murders the young warrior and “rip[s] off the ponderous belt of Pallas” as a sort of trophy for his merciless victory (X.683). In this instance, Turnus’s brutality proves to be only superficially effective and is ultimately counterproductive as Turnus’s lust for blood and deadly violence is what leads not only to Palla’s death, but also his own. Even Vigil notes that “a time will come to Turnus when he will long / to purchase at great price an untouched Pallas”, thus explicitly indicating that Turnus makes a grave error upon his killing of Pallas (X.693-694). In the end, Aeneas almost chooses to spare Turnus’s life until he lays eyes on “the luckless belt of Pallas, of the boy / whom Turnus had defeated, wounded, stretched / upon the battlefield, from whom he took / this fatal sign to wear upon his back” (XII.1257-1260). Aeneas is reminded again of Turnus’s deadly violence toward his friend, and thereby draws the final blow to the fatal crusade that has depleted countless resources and claimed innumerable lives on each side. Therefore, Turnus’s initiation of deadly violence in the Aeneid proves to be immensely unproductive as it goes on to ignite excessive tragedies and, with the ultimate defeat of Turnus, fulfills neither the goal of winning a bride nor demonstrating his greatness as a warrior.

Although true that violence is typically unproductive and fails to produce favorable results in most instances presented in the Aeneid, it can also be argued through consideration of such events as Aeneas’s killing of Turnus that violence as an agent of fate is an exceptional case. The concept of destiny plays a substantial role in the story as the up-and-coming Aeneas seeks to fulfill the prophecy that he and his descendants will found the great empire of Rome. Throughout the journey, Aeneas and his crew are met with numerous unforeseen circumstances and obstacles, many of which can be traced to the animosity of the goddess Juno; yet, none of the hindrances experienced ever fully impede Aeneas because his outcome is fated and immutable. This is emphasized even by Juno herself, who admits the inability to change Aeneas’s fate— though not for lack of trying. In any case, if Aeneas is to fulfill his destiny and secure the lands of Latium for his lineage, he must first rid of the foremost rival that stands in his way: Turnus. After a series of devastating battles by both of the armies vying for victory, the conflict inevitably shifts in favor of the Trojans and in the final scene finds Turnus begging for mercy at the hands of the titular hero. Although Aeneas hesitates and considers sparing Turnus, the sight of Pallas’s belt drives Aeneas to deliver the final blow and perform the most significant act of deadly violence in the epic (XII.1263-1269). However, unlike other instances of fatality in the story, the conclusive death of Turnus proves to be not only a productive deed, but a necessary one. Aeneas’s obliteration of Turnus is the final obstacle that is overcome and thereby allows Aeneas to achieves his ultimate goals; by killing Turnus, Aeneas secures peace in his new domain, obtains the right to marry Princess Lavinia, wins justice for his deceased friend and ally Pallas, gains honor for triumph over his most formidable foe, and overall successfully realizes his fate. Thus, although the death of Turnus by Aeneas is perhaps the most significant of deadly violences in the Aeneid, it is also the most productive in that it satisfies both the mortal and godly requisites that define the tale.

Ultimately it is clear that most acts of deadly violence in the Aeneid are not productive. From Dido’s self-inflicted sacrifice to Aeneas’s merciless slaying of Turnus, violence proves to be a superficial means of realizing goals that is ultimately surpassed by much greater consequences. The Aeneid successfully encapsulates the ineffectual qualities of deadly violence by depicting the tragic outcomes that typically plague characters who ascribe to brutality. As such, Virgil effectively illustrates the futility of violence as a medium of achieving goals, and emphasizes instead the inevitability of fate, which transcends efforts of productivity with or without violence.

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