The Aeneid is a tale of perseverance. Or so it seems. In its very first lines, Troy is destroyed, and Aeneas and his family must search for a new home and a new life. Trial after trial seem to pursue the struggling group as it becomes clear that even the gods are against them. Eventually, after a long odyssey similar in structure to Homer’s tale, Aeneas’ family is finally able to settle down and build the city of Rome because they persevered through their trials. At least, that’s how it first appears. But is this really the case? Welcome, fellow over-analyzers, and today we’re going to be talking about fate.
Aeneas and his family are notorious about playing the blame game. From the story, which relies heavily on Aeneas’ point of view, we find out that the goddess Juno has been plotting to keep the band from settling the future city of Rome. But we know that the gods in the story aren’t real. So, if the gods aren’t behind the misfortunes experienced by the characters, who is?
Looking back through the text, we can see that many of the family’s problems – getting cursed by the half-bird, half-woman Harpies, for instance – come from their own poor choices; in this case, from slaughtering and eating the Harpies’ cattle. The stated reason for this action in the Aeneid is that Juno tricked Aeneas’ followers into stealing the cows, however it’s more likely that they just thought the meat looked good. The characters continually blame fate and the gods for any strange occurrences, both good and bad (but especially bad), when in reality many of these seemingly miraculous happenings are the consequences of their own actions. The squabbling of Juno and Venus, Aeneas’ goddess mother, over his marriage to Dido could symbolize Aeneas’ own inner struggle. He wants to settle down in Carthage with this woman he loves, but he also wants to continue on and found his own city. In the end, his desire for a place of his own outweighs his commitment to Dido, and he sails away, leaving her grief-stricken to the point of taking her own life.
This blaming of Juno for all Trojan troubles is rooted in the mythos of the Iliad, when Venus sides with the Trojans in the war, and Juno takes the cause of the Greeks, allowing Troy to be destroyed. However, these gods and goddesses are only symbols of the tides of war and the consequences of the human actors in the stories. They represent the humans’ need to explain the unexplainable and defend their own bad choices.
Aeneas’ failure to accept responsibility for his actions sets up the string of misadventures that keep his family from settling down for so long. In an article from the Harvard Business Review, Peter Bregman explains that although we blame others to preserve our own self-esteem and image, not taking responsibility actually weakens them. He notes that people tend to blame departments or products rather than blaming other people directly, which might cause a confrontation. This same logic applies to Aeneas and the Trojans (and everyone else in the story), who blame the impersonal, fickle “gods” instead of owning up to their own behavior. Bregman goes on to point out what he considers the worst effect of blaming: it prevents the blamer from learning. If you can convince yourself that what you’ve done isn’t your fault, you probably won’t see a need to change your patterns of behavior. This will inevitably lead to more mistakes and more blaming, creating a vicious cycle of irresponsibility.
We can see that this is true in the Aeneid when Aeneas and his men slaughter and eat an abandoned herd of cattle on an island, later discovering that these cows belonged to the Harpies. Angered, the Harpies drive the Trojans off the island and try to kill them. As they leave, the Harpies continue to curse them and stir up the waves to cause a shipwreck. Aeneas blames Juno for tricking him into taking the cattle instead of admitting that he should have asked their owners first. Later on, he makes the same mistake with the Latins, simply eating a banquet laid out on a table and using the Latins’ land without permission. This eventually results in all-out war between the people groups, leading to many lost lives, both Latin and Trojan.
Pain and suffering are a part of life, and even truly wise people who own up to their mistakes still experience hardship. But if Aeneas and his crew had taken responsibility for their own actions instead of blaming them on mythical gods or blind fate, they might have been able to avoid some of their troubles. Instead of blaming the gods for their own mistakes, they could have simply accepted that they were wrong and moved on. If they had realized their mistake of greed and thoughtlessness on the island of the Harpies, they could probably have avoided angering the Latins later by making a similar mistake. They could have avoided an entire war and much bloodshed by simply owning up to their own choices and apologizing for them.
Fate and the gods are interpreted by Aeneas and the Trojans as a key part of their journey, orchestrating the events that occur from behind the scenes. However, were this actually true, free will for the characters would be an illusion. The gods would just be using the mortals as puppets to carry out their plans. Without free will, we cannot find happiness, because happiness is a choice. If fate dictated the characters’ behavior in the Aeneid, Aeneas and his family would never be able to find true happiness, even once they built the great city of Rome in their new land.