Ethics, Duty and Sexuality in Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid
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 relationship, and Aeneas’ flight is thus provoked by a delusional determinism and a misguided sense of family duty.
When human relations are stripped of duty, piety and familial awareness, the remaining aspect of love—the sensual—tends to be exaggerated in compensation, granting sexuality and the accompanying romance an undue importance within the human experience. Queen Dido provides an example of a person given over completely to the fulfillment of erotic pleasure. Virgil describes her as being “eaten by a secret flame” (Virgil, IV, 3), to the detriment of her responsibility to her city. The pursuit of personal pleasure without regard to duty is shown through Dido to be inherently self-destructive. Described as a wounded animal that continues to move around, ignorant of the arrow in its flesh (Virgil, IV, 91-5), Dido pursues her love for Aeneas without regard for the health of her own soul or the well-being of Carthage.
Another extreme, embodied in the Trojan hero Aeneas, is the complete subordination of sexual desire to the pursuit of personal and familial glory. Aeneas does not act of his own free will, but of his unflinching sense of pietas, the sublime mandate of fate and progeny on his soul. There is a tragic...