Study Guide

The Aeneid Fate and Free Will

By Virgil

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Fate and Free Will

Book 1

"Give up what I began?
Am I defeated? Am I impotent
To keep the king of Teucrians from Italy?
The Fates forbid me, am I to suppose?" (1.56-59)

These words are spoken by Juno near the beginning of Book 1, when she sees Aeneas and company happily sailing toward Italy. The irony is that, to each and every one of these questions, the answer is "Yes." Juno will have to give up what she began (destroying all the Trojans), and in this sense she is defeated. The king (Aeneas) of the Teucrians (Trojans) will make it to Italy and found a new city. Why? Because it is fated. That said, the poem would be pretty boring if Juno just sat down and accepted all that, wouldn't it? The thing is, the Romans didn't see "Fate" and "Free Will" as completely opposite concepts; even if it was fated that something would happen, there still was a lot of wiggle room over how it would happen. Juno decides to make the most of that wiggle room, and make the Trojans' life a living underworld until they can finally found their city.

Book 2

Then, even then, Cassandra's lips unsealed
The doom to come: lips by a god's command
Never to be believed or heeded by the Trojans. (2.330-332)

Along with Laocoön, who throws a spear at the wooden horse and is subsequently killed by snakes, the figure of Cassandra tantalizes the reader with alternate possibilities for how the fall of Troy might have played out. Assuming that Cassandra hadn't been condemned to be disbelieved, do you think she would have had any better luck at convincing the Trojans of their danger? To help you think about this question, look at Virgil's description of crowd psychology a few lines earlier (2.314-329) as the Trojans are hauling the horse into the city.

'You must not hold the woman of Laconia,
That hated face, the cause of this, nor Paris.
The harsh will of the gods it is, the gods,
That overthrows the splendor of this place
And brings Troy from her height into the dust.' (2.790-794)

Venus speaks these words to stop Aeneas from killing Helen, whom he blames for bringing destruction on the Trojans. On the surface, Venus's words look like a straight-up statement of how we aren't to blame for our fate – and hence it makes no sense for Aeneas to take his anger out on Helen. (As can be seen in the other quotes in this section, the Aeneid usually portrays the interaction between Fate and Free Will as a bit more nuanced than that.) On a deeper level, though, it is good to bear in mind something that every reader of the Aeneid would have known from Homer's Iliad: that Venus herself (a.k.a. Aphrodite) was the one who made Helen run off with Paris. In a sense, what Venus might really be saying is, "Hey, I'm the one who made her do it, so leave her out of this."

Book 3

'Here are signs for you to keep in mind:
When in anxiety by a stream apart
Beneath shore oaks you find a giant sow,
Snow-white, reclining there, suckling a litter
Of thirty snow-white young: that place will be
You haven after toil, site of your town.
And have no fear of table-biting times;
The fates will find a way for you; Apollo
Will be at hand when called.' (3.527-535)

These words by Helenus shine a more positive light on prophecy than the scene featuring Cassandra from Book 2. By telling the Trojans what to look out for, Helenus gives them a guiding light – in the form of a radiantly white pig – to encourage them on their journey and let them know then they've arrived.

Book 6

(The Sibyl):
"So lift your eyes and search, and once you find it
Pull away the bough. It will come willingly,
Easily, if you are called by fate.
If not, with all your strength you cannot conquer it,
Cannot lop it off with a sword's edge." (6.213-217)

These words are spoken by the Sibyl (a priestess of Apollo) to Aeneas; she is instructing him on how to get the golden bough, which will serve as his passport to the underworld. These lines paint a pretty straightforward picture of Fate versus Free Will (i.e., if you're not fated to take the bough, your will isn't free to take it) – until you compare them with the scene when Aeneas actually finds the bough, later in the same book. Here's the decisive moment: "Aeneas at once briskly took hold of it / And, though it clung, greedily broke it off" (6.297-298), What's up with "clung" and "greedily broke it off"? That doesn't sound like what the Sibyl predicted. Is Aeneas acting against Fate? Some scholars have suggested that the bough only seems to "cling" from Aeneas's perspective, because he is so eager. (The technical term for this is "focalization" – in that the narrative is "focused" through Aeneas's eyes.) Still, it's a mystery. Got any ideas?

Book 7

"It will not be permitted me--so be it--
To keep the man from rule in Italy;
By changeless fate Lavinia waits, his bride.
And yet to drag it out, to pile delay
Upon delay in these great matters--that
I can do: to destroy both countries' people,
That I can do." (7.427-433)

Compare this quotation with the first one for this theme. Notice any connection? That's right: if there's anything Juno can't stop talking about, it's how, even though Fate says the Trojans are going to found an awesome empire, she's determined to make things difficult for them.

"Look, how we've devoured our tables even!"
Iulus playfully said, and said no more,
For that remark as soon as heard had meant
The end of wandering: even as it fell
From the speaker's lips, his father caught it, stopped
The jesting there, struck by the word of heaven (7.151-157)

This famous scene is an example of a common theme in ancient literature: that people often fulfill prophecies unexpectedly, without even knowing it. The most famous example of this is Oedipus, who fulfills a prophecy saying he would kill his father and marry his mother, because of his ignorance of who his true parents are. (It's a little complicated to explain; check out our Shmoop guide – and read the play! – if you're confused.) Often, the fulfillment of a prophecy will be something relatively harmless – as in this case, where the prediction that Aeneas and his men will be reduced to eating their plates really just means they will end up chowing down on pizza (the dough is thought of as the plate).

Book 8

Knowing nothing of the events themselves,
He felt joy in their pictures, taking up
Upon his shoulder all the destined acts
And fame of his descendants. (8.989-992)

These lines illustrate Aeneas's reaction after receiving the armor made for him by the god Vulcan. (In case you don't remember, the shield is decorated with many scenes from future Roman history.) Do you think the fact that the future is already, in some sense, written (OK, engraved) means that Aeneas acts without free will? Or is it more complicated than that? Does the fact that Aeneas knows "nothing of the events themselves" change anything?

Book 10

"If a reprieve is asked
From imminent death, more time for the young man
Before he falls – if so you understand me
Take Turnus off in flight, wrest him away
From fate that stands before him. There is room
For that much lenience. If some greater favor
Lies hid in your mind beneath your prayer,
If you imagine the whole war affected,
Changed by this, you cherish a vain hope." (10.872-880)

These lines echo a concept of Fate that recurs many times in the Aeneid: even though the general pattern is determined in advance, there is some leeway in how things actually play out. What makes Jupiter's words a bit different is that they come from the horse's mouth; from this speech, Jupiter sounds like the guy who enforces the rule of Fate, and gives permission for small divergences from the overall plan. We say "enforces" because Jupiter isn't the one who decides what's fated; that job falls to the three goddesses known as the Parcae, who spin out fate like a thread, as the beginning of the poem tells us: "so the Parcae spun" (1.35). Virgil's original audience would have been familiar enough with Homer to hear this line as a contrast with the beginning of the Iliad, which attributes the entire story to "the will of Zeus." Zeus, of course, is the Greek version of Jupiter. What do you make of Homer and Virgil's different perspectives on fate and the king of the gods?

Book 12

"While fortune seemed
Compliant, and the Fates let power rest
With Latium, your brother and your city
Had my protection. Now I see the soldier
Meeting a destiny beyond his strength:
His doom's day, mortal shock of the enemy,
Are now at hand. I cannot bear to watch
This duel, this pact. If you dare help your brother
More at close quarters, do it, and well done.
A better time may follow present pain." (12.197-206)

Once again, Juno addresses the Aeneid's most common portrayal of Fate: fixed on the macro level, a bit more open on the micro level. By this point, she has resigned herself to defeat, but she's still willing to let someone else (Turnus's sister, the nymph Juturna) interfere, provided she's willing to risk taking the heat for it. What do you make of the last line of Juno's speech? Do you think she is genuinely hopeful that things might turn out alright for Turnus? Is this just wishful thinking (something a bit different from being hopeful)? Or is she just messing with Juturna's mind?

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