Study Guide

The Aeneid Duty

By Virgil

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Book 1

"I am Aeneas, duty-bound, and known
Above high air of heaven by my fame,
Carrying with me in my ships our gods
Of hearth and home, saved from the enemy.
I look for Italy to be my fatherland,
And my descent is from all-highest Jove." (1.519-524)

This is how Aeneas introduces himself to the huntress he meets in the forest of Libya (actually, the huntress is his mother, Venus, in disguise). They reveal how much his mission and responsibilities make up his identity.

So ran the speech. Burdened and sick at heart,
He feigned hope in his look, and inwardly
Contained his anguish. […]
Aeneas, more than any, secretly
Mourned for them all (1.284-286, 300-301)

These lines come at the beginning and the end of the Trojans' feast on the beach in Book 1. They show the burdens of leadership: even though Aeneas feels more saddened than anyone else for the loss of their companions, he also has to hide his grief more than anyone else, so that he can keep up the survivors' spirits.

Book 4

Amazed, and shocked to the bottom of his soul
By what his eyes had seen, Aeneas felt
His hackles rise, his voice choke in his throat.
As the sharp admonition and command
From heaven had shaken him awake, he now
Burned only to be gone, to leave that land
Of the sweet life behind. (4.379-395)

What could make someone so eager "to leave that land / Of the sweet life behind"? Duty, that's what! Mercury (who was sent down by Jupiter) has just reminded Aeneas of his responsibilities to establish a kingdom for his son Ascanius, which won't happen if he spends all his time with Dido, helping her build her city.

Aeneas, though he struggled with desire
To calm and comfort her in all her pain,
To speak to her and turn her mind from grief,
And though he sighed his heart out, shaken still
With love of her, yet took the course heaven gave him
And went back to the fleet. (4.545-551)

This passage continues the same theme as the previous one. What is different here is that now we see more clearly how Aeneas himself "struggles with desire" for a different life. Why do you think Virgil chose to give us this glimpse into his hero's heart? Do you think knowing how Aeneas acted against his own feelings makes him a greater or a lesser hero?


'Each night thoughts come of young Ascanius,
My dear boy wronged, defrauded of his kingdom,
Hesperian lands of destiny. And now
The gods' interpreter, sent by Jove himself—
I swear it by your head and mine—has brought
Commands down through the racing winds! I say
With my own eyes in full daylight I saw him
Entering the building! With my very ears
I drank his message in! So please, no more
Of these appeals that set us both afire.
I sail for Italy not of my own will.' (4.489-499)

These words, spoken by Aeneas to Dido when she confronts him about leaving, are his version of the "It's not you, it's me" speech. Well, make that the "It's not you, but it's not me either: it's the implacable powers of destiny that we all must obey." Here, as elsewhere, the Aeneid portrays duty as conflicting with personal desires and connections.

Book 6

This was the company of those who suffered
Wounds in battle for their country; those
Who in their lives were holy men and chaste
Or worthy of Phoebus in prophetic song;
Or those two bettered life, by finding out
New truths and skills; or those who to some folk
By benefactions made themselves remembered. (6.883-889)

These lines come from the description of Elysium, the pleasant part of the underworld where good people get to chill out until they're reborn. One thing many (though not all) of these people have in common is that they acted for the benefit of others; some have made the ultimate sacrifice for their community. How does this scene from the underworld contribute to the Aeneid's overall perspective on duty?

"When his own two sons
Plot war against the city, he will call
For the death penalty in freedom's name—
Unhappy man, no matter how posterity
May see these matters. Love of the fatherland
Will sway him—and unmeasured lust for fame." (6.1103-1108)

With these words, Anchises points out to Aeneas the figure of Lucius Junius Brutus among the souls waiting to be reborn. For more on this figure, and the context for the incident Anchises is referring to, check out this link. What do you make of the fact that Anchises lists "unmeasured lust for fame" among his motivations? How does this complicate the poem's overall depiction of duty?

Book 10

Now daylight left the sky, and the mild moon,

In mid-heaven, rode her night-wandering car,

But duty would not give Aeneas rest:

He held the tiller still, still shifted sail. (10.297-300)

As so many others, this scene shows how Aeneas's strong sense of responsibility prevents him from enjoying the comforts of life. In this case, this is definitely a good thing, since if he were to fall asleep, the ship might crash. Even so, not everything is under Aeneas's control. For a sense of how misfortune can interfere with duty, compare this passage with the very similar scene of the death of Palinurus at the end of Book 5.

Book 11

"Was it you, poor boy, that Fortune
Would not let me keep when she came smiling?
You who were not to see our kingdom won,
Or ride in victory to your father's house?
This was not the pledge I made Evander
On your behalf, on leaving him, when he
Embraced me and gave godspeed to my quest
For country-wide command." (11.56-63)

These words are spoken by Aeneas over the body of the Arcadian prince Pallas. They show that his grief for the dead boy is not only personal; he is also ashamed of having failed to live up to his promise to protect him.

Book 12

Meanwhile, the man of honor, Aeneas, stood
Bare-headed with his right hand out, unarmed,
And called his troops:
"Where bound? Are you a mob?
Why this outbreak of brawling all at once?
Cool your hot heads. A pact has been agreed to,
Terms have been laid down. I am the one
To fight them. Let me do so. Never fear:
With this right hand I'll carry out the treaty.
Turnus is mine, our sacrifice obliged it." (12.427-436)

Here we see Aeneas attempting to restore order after what was going to be a duel between him and Turnus became a scene of mass violence. Aeneas is so committed to honor his agreements that he can't imagine anyone would break them. Can you think of other moments in the poem where Aeneas mistakenly thinks that other people will understand his sense of duty?

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