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Pius Aeneas: Does piteas accurately or adequately describe Aeneas' character?

Vergil chose the epithet 'Pius' for the hero of the Aeneid. Modern scholars seem to prefer terms like "lifeless... a coward, a muddler and a seducer" (Bowra 1933) . And there is indeed something difficult about Aeneas. He is not always and entirely Pius. He hesitates. He disobeys divine command. He rails against his fate, and he is overtaken by furor. Can Pietas adequately - or even accurately - encompass Aeneas' character? As a simple description it is lacking, incongruous, and even sometimes blatantly untrue. So why Pius in the text? I contend, though, that it is nonetheless crucial to understanding his character. Pietas for Aeneas is much more complex and nuanced than a descriptive adjective - it is an ideal to aspire to, a principle for Aeneas to define himself by, and ultimately the driving force behind much of the Aeneid's narrative.

Aeneas is a hero written for a Roman audience, with Roman values, and without some kind of background it is difficulty to reconcile Aeneas' behaviour. One such background, proposed by Bowra among others, suggests reading Aeneas with stoic values in mind. This reading makes a lot of sense, as stoicism was a popular philosophy in the empire at the time - but more importantly, it explains why Aeneas is the way he is. Bowra proposes that we see Aeneas' pietas as an expression of the stoic idea of justice, but crucially, justice is just one aspect of the stoic idea of 'goodness'. While Aeneas possesses justice, he lacks courage, moderation, and wisdom. The purpose of the first six books in this model is to serve as a series of trials through which Aeneas can be tested, develop these other qualities, and become truly 'good'.

It is not my intention to present yet another Stoic interpretation of Aeneas since, as Lyne (1983) put it, "the application of labels (Stoic, or whatever) to a poem as elusive as the Aeneid is bound to have a distorting effect". The idea that Aeneas does not start the story 'complete' is useful nonetheless. Pietas makes more sense as a principle which has to be striven for and tested, rather than as a description of Aeneas' character.

The poem also presents another force, furor, as "the inimical polarity to the cardinal virtue of pietas" (Lyne 1983), against which Aeneas' virtue is tested While this often in the form of an external character such as Dido or Turnus, the first main character to be possessed by furor is Aeneas himself, when the Greeks begin their sack of Troy:

"Madly I snatch up my arms, beyond thinking how best to employ them;
only I'm wild to rally some fighters and counter-attack
to relieve the citadel: blind rage and desperation
Drive me; one thought comes - that death in battle is a fine thing."
Aeneid II.314-317

This is a perfect definition of Furor: "madness", being "beyond thinking", "blind rage" and "desperation". Seeing these qualities first in Aeneas himself is crucial as it shows that he is not a paragon of virtue, but just as susceptible to emotions as Dido or Turnus later in the poem. Aeneas' strength is that his convictions, when appropriately invoked, are strong enough to overcome furor, and it is these convictions that lead him away from his drive to die gloriously in battle into safety, where Dido and Turnus both are led by their furor to the grave.

Aeneas' furor here is somewhat contradictory, though. Yes, he loses control of himself to blind rage, but the reason he does so is a fierce sense of duty to his city, a patriotic desire to defend his home, family, and gods from Greeks who throughout the sack are shown mercilessly burning buildings, killing families and desecrating temples. With this idea of the possibility of Pius furor in mind, the pleas that Anchises and Creusa make near the end of the book set up a demonstration and definition of pietas, as fundamentally opposed to furor.

"If it's deathwards you go, take us with you! O take us, and come what may.
But if your experience tells you that something is to be gained by
Fighting, protect this house first! Think what you're leaving us to-
Ascanius, your father, and me who loved to be called your wife once!"
Aeneid II.675-678

This is followed immediately by an omen from the gods:

"Just then a miracle happened, A wonderful miracle, imagine it-
our hands and our sad eyes were upon
Ascanius, when we beheld a feathery tongue of flame
luminously alight his head, licking the soft curls
with fire that harmed them not, and playing about his temples."
Aeneid II.680-684

These are the things which one should be Pius towards: to household, son, father and wife, and to the instructions of fate as laid down by the gods. In opposing these to Aeneas patriotic fury, the poem shows us subtly that duty to king and state are less important than filial and sacred pietas. This theme re-emerges later in Book 3, when Aeneas abandons a state he has founded on the instructions of his father and the gods, and again in Book 5, when what convinces Aeneas to leave Dido is not loyalty to the unfounded state of Rome, but familial loyalty to his son Ascanius and the future generations of his family.

In following his pietas, Aeneas also rejects "the values and behaviour of the old heroic word of bloodlust, violence, 'honour' and the senseless pursuit of fame." (Boyle, 1993). In overcoming the drive to die 'honourably' and flee instead, Aeneas is contrasted with the "insolent glory" (II.470), "crazed with bloodlust" (II.500) of Pyrrhus and the other Greeks, and indeed of the entire Trojan war. In narrative terms, Pietas as a higher principle serves to separate the Aeneid as a story from the furor and excess of the Trojan war.

Having finally been convinced to abandon Troy to found Rome, Aeneas immediately turns his back on the instructions Creusa gives him, and attempts to found a town in Thrace. While this is not the mythical Hesperia which he was ordered to settle, on a superficial level it seems ideal:

"Yonder there lay a land of broad plains, tilled by the Thracians,
A land protected by Mars, ruled once by hot-tempered Lycurgus,
Allied with Troy from of old through friendly relations and marriage,
While fortune smiled upon us. Thither I went, and began to
Build a town by its shore (an enterprise which fate
Was biased against), and made up its name from my own, Aenea."
Aeneid III.13-18

The land is arable, sacred, and the locals are longstanding allies of Troy. When it turns out that these allies have turned on Troy with gruesome consequences for Polydorus, Aeneas very specifically avoids deciding for himself. Rather, he defers entirely to the supernatural, his father, and an ancient custom to make the decision to abandon a city he has already, in name at least, founded.

"I referred the supernatural affair to my most trusted counsellors,
My father foremost, and asked them to give their views on it.
They were unanimous for leaving this guilty land,
where guest-laws had been thus outraged."
Aeneid III.58-61

This first passage sets up the key conflict for this book, the tension between the desire to settle down and Aeneas' pietas to his family and his gods. This cycle of settling briefly and moving on is repeated several times, next in Crete and then on the island of the Harpies. Each time, the land seems ideal, but the Trojans are driven on by some supernatural force. While it is obvious that the force driving him onwards is pietas, the force compelling him to stay is a little harder to define. It would appear, though, to be akin to the themes of the nostos, a desire by warriors to settle down. The poem itself explicitly raises the idea of warriors becoming settlers, when Anchises reads the omens:

"War is your word, O strange land.
For war are horses needed, and those steeds there mean war
Nevertheless, in time can these same cattle be trained for
The shafts and learn to bear in amity yoke and bridle:
So there are hopes for peace too."
Aeneid III.539-542

While not exactly furor, the desire of warriors to settle down as an opposing force to pietas makes a lot of sense. Aeneas once refers to his fellow Trojans as "us weary folk" (III.79), which is a fair description - not only are they weary of wandering the oceans, but they have also just escaped a ten-year siege of their city. The desire for peace and stability seems entirely reasonable. 'Peace and stability' makes sense from a historical perspective too: not only was Vergil's Rome just settling down after a long period of civil wars and political upheaval, but the Roman soldiers who fought in many of those wars would be settled on the land in much the same way as the Trojans seek to. It was not a new theme for Vergil either - soldiers 'invading the innocent and happy world of the herdsman' (Griffin 1986) is a prominent theme of Vergil's earlier work, the Eclogues. To a Roman audience, the appeal of stability cannot be understated.

Galinsky (1996) suggests an equally valid interpretation, that Aeneas in his various attempted foundations and encounters with fellow Trojans, is "someone who, like many a good Roman, is trying to seek recourse in the past." He points out intentional similarities between Aeneas' prayer in I.92 and Odysseus' in Odyssey 5.306 - "Odysseus refers to his homecoming in Ithaca. For Aeneas, Troy is still home, and the nostalgic references to Troy are expanded." In other words, Aeneas' journey is like a reverse nostos. Where Odysseus' desire to return home spurs him on, that same desire in Aeneas holds him back. In this case, Aeneas pietas motivates him, rather than moderates him as it does back in Troy. Where weariness, or nostalgia, keep him in place, it is duty to his gods and his father that drive him onwards.

Much more difficult to reconcile is Aeneas' behaviour on the battlefield in the later parts of the poem. On one hand, Aeneas is clearly possessed by furor while fighting the Italians - as Diomed recounts to Turnus:

We've faced his tigerish weapons,
have met him hand to hand. Believe me, I know from experience
how he springs at you, with his shield up, how his spear comes at you like
a hurricane.
Aeneid XI.282-285

The similes here are crucial. Aeneas is compared to a tiger, an untamable wild beast, and a hurricane, an example of uncontrollable chaos similar to the storm that is prominently featured in the first book. While this might describe Aeneas in this book (for example, where he slays Lausus in book 10), Diomed is in fact referring back to the Trojan war. As well as anchoring Aeneas' story more firmly in the epic tradition, it also prompts comparisons with how he behaves in the battle against Turnus. The Aeneas of this book behaves differently to the heroes of Troy in the past, and very differently to Turnus in the present. Turnus on the battlefield is described in this simile from book 11:

Head still unhelmeted, he has strapped the sword to his side
And is running down from the citadel heights, a flash of gold,
And exults in coming to grips with the enemy.
So when a horse has broken its tether and galloped away from
the paddock, free at last out on the open plains,
look how he makes for the meadow where herds of mares are grazing,
or else he plunges into some well-known stream as he loves to,
then leaps out, and throwing his muzzle high, so the mane is tossed
over neck and shoulders, he whinnies in wild exhilaration!
Aeneid XI.489-497

Turnus in battle is 'untethered' - there is nothing restraining him from acting on his desires. Several lines earlier he is described as 'eager', but this seems like an understatement. The way Turnus feels in battle is more akin to lust, as a 'stallion for a mare', and a freedom from the constraints that prevent him from acting on that lust off the battlefield.

Turnus represents furor in just about its purest terms: unconstrained, unthinking madness. How Aeneas acts is much more controversial. Some suggest that he "is presented as achieving [his] goal not through the operation of pietas... but through violence, rage, vengeance and furor." (Boyle 1993) Others see the exact same events in the opposite light, asserting that "it is only pietas for the dead Pallas that can bring Aeneas, after so many brave and heroic deeds, finally to kill Turnus and fulfill his destiny." (McLeish 1972).

There is evidence in the text for both viewpoints. On one hand, Aeneas is often described as acting with 'anger' or 'rage':

"Aeneas then got really angry: his hand had been forced by
their treachery. Seeing that Turnus had driven off, well out of reach,
He repeatedly called to witness Jove and the altar of the broken
treaty, and then at last went in at the foe, with the flood-tide
of battle behind him, gave rein to the pent up fury within him,
and terribly unleashed a fierce, indiscriminate slaughter."
Aeneid XII.494-499

But Aeneas' rage is always something that he decides to use, unlike Turnus', which is uncontrollable. The use of 'giving rein' and 'unleashing' is significant, given the simile used to describe Turnus earlier. Aeneas' furor is held in check by his pietas. Before he can 'indiscriminately slaughter' Italians, he must first remind himself and the gods of the oath they have broken, and the use of 'repeatedly' and 'at last' show that this is not a process he takes lightly.

This is typical of Aeneas' behaviour on the battlefield. It is violent and unrelenting, but always tempered by his pietas, and in many ways tied to it - his foe is presented is being impious in some way, much as the Greeks were presented in Book 2, and Aeneas' furor is thus justified. Killing Magus is framed as a victory of pietas over desire, with Magus offering bribes and Aeneas refusing while invoking Ascanius and Anchises (10.532). The violence of killing Lausus is tempered by weeping for the Pius bond he had with his father (10.825). And when the Italians break the treaty, Aeneas holds them back, remaining loyal to the now-broken truce (12.311).

Thus, while there is reason to see the death of Turnus as a failure of pietas, there is also room in the text to read it as a victory of pietas.

"Aeneas stood over him, poised on the edge of the stroke, but his eyes were restless, he did not strike.
And now what Turnus had said was taking effect, was making him
more and more indecisive, when on his enemy's shoulder
he noticed the fatal baldric, the belt with its glittering studs -
How well he know it! - which Turnus had stripped from young Pallas after
he'd killed him, a symbol of triumph and doom.
Aeneas fastened his eyes n this relic, this sad reminder
of all the pain Pallas' death had caused. Rage shook him."
Aeneid XII.938-946

Possibly the most convincing of these is the idea that Aeneas owed some kind of duty to Pallas and Evander. This explains why Aeneas is "indecisive" up until he sees Pallas' belt, prompting a bout of Pius rage. The belt reminds him of his duty, to Pallas as a follower and a surrogate son, to Evander as a friend and ally, and crucially, to the "debt" Evander bestowed upon Aeneas when Pallas died:

"Go forth, and forget not to take back these words to your king;
Tell him I linger on, though I care not for life now Pallas
is gone, to receive the debt which he knows is owing to father and son - Vengeance on Turnus, it's the sole task that remains for
his courage and luck to accomplish."
Aeneid XI.176-180

In addition to this filial piety there is a second thread of pietas at work in this scene, of duty to the gods. When Turnus takes the belt he is described as "ignorant of fate" (10.501), later in the same book Jupiter refers to him as the "one who is doomed." (10.623) References like this continue to appear for the rest of the poem, suggesting that although Aeneas is unaware of it, Turnus' death is preordained, and no matter how Aeneas carries it out, in killing Turnus he is acting as the instrument of fate.

Despite being an instrument of fate though, if Aeneas is not even aware of his role he can hardly be said to be acting the higher principle which is pietas, and as I have argued, the importance of pietas to the poem is the strive for it, not necessarily the results. However, there is still a possible religious element to killing Turnus. The taking of the belt was "wrong in terms of ancient religious thought and practice [...] the spoils of the dead were somehow taboo and should be dedicated to the gods." (Harrison 1998[?]) The belt is thus also a symbol of Turnus' impiety and lack of respect for the gods, which is worthy of retribution.

In contrast to the preceding battle scenes where it acts as a restraint on Aeneas' actions, in this scene pietas is operating as it does in earlier books and driving him to act. This dual purpose is why Aeneas often seems so 'inconsistent', but is also what makes pietas so powerful. Rather than being a driving force (as, for example, Odysseus' desire to return home is) pietas can be seen as a moderating force. It allows him neither to become too complacent and settle down, nor to become too possessed by furor and act inappropriately. Pietas as a moderating force not only has obvious links to the stoic idea of moderation, but to more general Roman morals as well, in which moderation was seen as the antidote to a continuous moral decline, typified in Vergil's own description by the Italians of the Trojans as easterners:

"You, in your dresses embroidered in yellow and loud purple,
You with the hearts of loafers, you devotees of dancing,
With frilly sleeves to your tunics and bonnets kept on by ribbons"
Aeneid IX.613-616

The Aeneid is about the founding of Rome, and so Aeneas having his pietas and his moderation tested and proved is ultimately about the founding of the Roman character. The meaning of the ending, as a triumph or failure of Aeneas' pietas, is determined by one's opinion on recent events in Roman history, how they reflected on the Roman character, and whether or not one believes Vergil was cynical or supportive of it. I would contend that the ending of the poem is deliberately confronting and deliberately left open in terms of consequences and moral judgments, for precisely this reason. While the poem goes to great lengths to explore the challenges to, consequences of, and meaning of Pietas, the interpretation of whether Aeneas (and Rome) succeed in attaining it in the poem's final lines is left to the mind of the reader.

Pietas does not just adequately describe Aeneas' character. It is absolutely central to understanding him. It is central to understanding the way he makes decisions. It is central to understanding why he behaves with such seeming inconsistency. Struggling with it is central to making his character as flawed and complex as it is. Striving towards it is, narratively speaking, what moves the entire plot of the poem forward - without pietas, Aeneas would have been killed in Troy, or settled in Crete, or stayed with Dido, and there would be nothing to drive him onwards as a character. To the reader it is just as crucial. Our understanding of the ending of the poem (especially as a modern reader, potentially unfamiliar with the philosophy of the ancients) is based on how well we as readers can make sense of pietas. Our interpretation of the poem's final moments is ultimately based on comparing Aeneas' actions with that understanding of what it means to be Pius - exactly as Aeneas himself would.


Boyle, A. J., Roman Epic. (London, Routlege, 1993)

Bowra, C.M., 'Aeneas and the Stoic Ideal' Greece & Rome 3 (1933): 8–21.

Griffin, Jasper. Virgil. (London, Bristol Classical, 2001).

Galinsky, K., Augustan Culture: An Interpretive Introduction (Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1996).

Harrison, S.J. 'The Sword-Belt of Pallas: Moral symbolism and political ideology.' in Virgil's Aeneid: Augustan Epic and Political Context. (London, Duckworth, 1998)

Lyne, R.O.A.M. "The Politics of War." Classical Quarterly 33, no. 1 (1983): 188-203.

McLeish, Kenneth, "Dido, Aeneas, and the Concept of 'Pietas'" Greece & Rome 19, No. 2 (1972): 127-135