Is Aeneas a Good Warrior?
'I sing of arms and of the man, fated to be an exile', begins Virgil, and it is on precisely the issue of this man of arms that critical debate in recent years has tended to centre. Scholars continue to disagree on whether or not Aeneas is presented as a good soldier, although the question itself is certainly far from black and white, complicated by the culturally relative nature of terms such as 'conflict' and 'courage', as well as by the rather oblique definition that 'good' itself holds. In this essay I will attempt to resolve these complexities and ambiguities by juxtaposing Aeneas against the Roman and Homeric ideals of the warrior, exemplified by Aemilius Paullus and Odysseus respectively. I will argue that Aeneas meets the criteria set by neither model and that, ultimately, he is an emotionally unstable, morally dubious and even an incompetent military leader.
However, the very fact that he is the protagonist needs to be stressed: his character is necessarily sympathetic, dynamic and intricate. My intention is not to assert that Aeneas is a villain or a coward; he is quite obviously neither of these things and such an interpretation of the Aeneid, a text rich and ambiguous in meaning, would be nothing short of reductive. And in this way he must, and does, have some positive, somewhat redeeming features. K. W. Gransden notes that, 'Virgil created in Aeneas a new type of Stoic hero'1, a point that is perhaps most evident in Book Four when Aeneas leaves Carthage. His speech to Dido is indicative of his determination to suffer both silently,
Aeneas did not move his eyes and struggled to fight down the anguish in his heart. (Bk. 4, p.91) and willing:
Do not go on causing distress to yourself and to me by these complaints. It is not by my own will that I still search for Italy. (Bk. 4, p.92)
Emotional restraint and acquiescence in regard to one's own fortunes and torment is intrinsic to a Roman conception of a warrior. Plutarch, for instance, emphasises exactly this in his description of the life of the potentate Aemilius Paullus who stoically accepts the death of his son and heir as 'retribution' for the Roman's successful military campaign against the Macedonians.2 Equally, the presentation of Aeneas in Book Four can be seen to parallel that of Odysseus in Book Nineteen of the Odyssey, where the reader is told that, in spite of his wife's tears, the hero's 'eyes were steady'.3 Aeneas, then, does conform to both the Roman and Homeric paradigms in his ability to endure the sufferings that Fate has allotted him. And yet his chief characteristic is not his endurance, as is the case with Odysseus, but rather his pietas, a quality essential for a Roman warrior. Time and time again in the Aeneid he is referred to as pius Aeneas, 'famous for his devotion'(6, p.145), so the Sibyl extols. This devotion is threefold in that it is not only religious and extends to both his family and to his duty as...