The Facets of Passion and Duty
By Michael Shen


Duty is a recurring theme throughout Virgilís The Aeneid. It plays a crucial role as a key character trait for the individuals that we encounter. If one takes the protagonist Aeneas aside and analyzes his persistent adherence to his own destiny, along with his unending concern for the welfare of his Trojan people, one could entertain the idea that his dedication and responsibility foreshadow the concept of duty to the Republic and obedience to Caesar that might have prevailed in Virgilís Roman society.

"Duty-bound Aeneas", as Virgil often describes him (The Aeneid, p. 110, l. 545), often has to make difficult decisions, sometimes at the expense of his own immediate happiness, to fulfill his destiny as founder of Rome. Throughout his journeys, he encounters various trials where each refines a different aspect of his character, evolving him into a hero and a leader. Indeed, his romantic affair with Dido of Carthage forces him to make the difficult choice of duty over love (p. 107), and the remorse that he displays as he placates her spirit in the Underworld demonstrates his sincere regret for having hurt her (p. 175). Concerning Dido, one clearly sees that responsibility holds a greater importance than emotion for Aeneas. However, in the war with the Latins, one no longer perceives such a defined moral code. Aeneasí inconsistent behavior is apparent in his last battle with Turnus. Turnus pleads with Aeneas to return his dead body to his father Daunus for a proper burial (p. 402, l. 1270-3), yet Aeneas, at the site of his fallen comradeís swordbelt on the shoulder of Turnus, fills with rage and kills Turnus without answering his request. It is evident that one can only explain such a display of savagery on the part of Aeneas through a loss of emotional control. Indeed, Aeneas lost his sense of duty and respect for his fellowman in the instant he took Turnusí life.

Turnus was an enemy of Aeneas, very much the same way Hektor was with respect to Achilleus in The Iliad. However, throughout his travels, one can gather that Aeneas is in fact not an individual devoid of sympathy and benevolence for his enemies. Take for instance the compassion he shows toward the Danaan sailor, left by Ulysses (Odysseus) on the island of the Cyclops (p. 87). The sailors clothing betrayed his identity as an enemy of the Trojans, yet this fact did not stop Aeneas from showing pity toward this individual. Aeneas extended kindness to the Greek as a fellow human, rather than an archenemy, by adopting him as one of their own (p. 89). The Trojan War has just ended at this point, and Troy fell at the hands of the invading Greek army; surely, one could imagine the amount of hatred both peoples still had toward the other. Yet Aeneas acted as a true leader and a role model for his fellow Trojans to follow by extending kindness to a sworn enemy.

Aeneas shows this similar humanitarian compassion on another occasion, and in this case the individual was a Latin, just like Turnus. When Lausus, son of Mezentius, dies at the hands of Aeneas, Virgil describes Aeneas as moved by "profound pity" when he beholds how young the boy was (p. 324). He proceeds to tell the dying child that he will not strip him of his armor, a conquerorís prize; he even returns Laususí body to the Latin people to be given a proper burial. So given both this encounter and the one with the Danaan sailor, one can conclude that Aeneas has the capacity to show mercy to anyone, friend or foe alike.

It seems uncharacteristic, then, that Turnus did not benefit from this compassionate side of Aeneas. When Turnus beseeches him on his knees to grant his request for a proper burial, he requests that Aeneas remember the relationship he had with his own father Achises (p. 402, l. 1268-9). Turnus merely asks that his body, dead or alive, be returned to his father after Aeneas is done with him. At this moment, it almost seems as if our hero will extend his greatest act of compassion yet to be seen in the epic so far by granting Turnus his life and letting him go home in peace (p. 402, l. 1277-81). In fact, one could argue that if Aeneas does grant Turnus his life, doing so would be a very wise political maneuver in attaining a valuable friend, or potential ally, in the region. Which path does Aeneas choose to take concerning the fate of this great Latin prince?

Alas, Aeneas chooses not to extend such a prudent, political gesture. This decision [to kill Turnus without even granting his request] was not a product of rational thought. Virgil tells us: "Then to [Aeneasí] glance appeared the accurst swordbelt surmounting Turnusí shoulder [Ö] Ėthe strap young Pallas wore when Turnus wounded him and left him dead upon the field" (p. 402, l. 1281-5). At the sight of the swordbelt that once belonged to his dear Trojan brother, Aeneas "raged at the relic of his anguish" and blazed with a terrible anger (p. 402, l. 1287-1290). The intensity of feeling is so vividly portrayed in Virgilís writing. This flood of emotion and fraternal love for his fellow Trojan clearly overpowers his thought processes of deciding the right course of action to take concerning Turnus. If concept of duty is so important to Aeneas, could one logically conclude that he faltered in this moment of indecision and abrupt action? What happened to the benevolent, humanitarian Aeneas that saved the life of one enemy and honored the death of another? Both the Greek and Latin mentioned earlier who were recipients of his mercy must have killed Trojans in the past. They were not any different than Turnus, since they too were enemies of the Trojan people. Hence, it is difficult not to conclude that Aeneasí better sense of judgement was clouded by violent passion when he took Turnusí life.

However, one can ponder if such drastic behavior really was uncharacteristic of Aeneas. For instance, in his affairs with Dido, it required the goading of the god Mercury to get him back on track to Italy (p. 105). Before that, it seemed as if he was quite content with his life in Carthage, overcome with love for Dido and the comfortable feeling of permanence and stability away from the tumultuous sea. Although in the end, duty did prevail over passion, one cannot validly say that Aeneas came to such conclusions on his own. One does not need to read so far into the epic to see how Aeneas is so easily swayed by emotion. When Troy was burning to the ground, Aeneas, filled with shame and frantic rage, was prepared to die fighting, neglecting his future destiny as the progenitor of Rome. Yet, it took both the pleading of his wife as well as a divine sign from heaven to persuade him, as well as his father, to flee the city (p. 105-6). In fact, throughout The Aeneid, Aeneas frequently relied on oracles and other divine messengers for guidance and direction. One could even say that if it were not for such instances of divine intervention, Aeneas would have strayed off his fated path much more frequently, and with greater consequences, because of his emotional spontaneity. So perhaps the murder of Turnus was not so uncharacteristic of Aeneas after all. No god or divine oracle was present to prevent Aeneas from taking his life; there was no one by his side to help him make the more benevolent decision in the heat of his passion. Perhaps "duty-bound Aeneas" might be too misleading of a phrase to describe our heroís character; rather, "pushed-to-duty, divinely-goaded Aeneas" might be a more appropriate classification.

On a different note, one could also approach Aeneasí sense of duty from another angle. While he might have had compassion for certain enemies, given the circumstances and his emotional state, Aeneasí love for his fellow Trojans and his concern for their futures have always been constant and the purveying influence of thoughts and actions. Aeneas takes his destiny as the founder of a great future empire very seriously. However, he does not seemed to be so concerned with the status he would achieve as ruler as much as he desires to leave his people, particularly his son Ascanius, a rich and stable legacy in Italy (p. 108). One can witness how he his sense of duty toward his traveling companions places their safety above convenience, as can be seen in his decision to sail around the length of Sicily rather than risk losing a few of his men to Scylla and Charybdis, monsters of the narrow pass between Italy and Sicily (p. 80-1, 85).

Aeneas is always concerned about the welfare of the collective, and perhaps his foremost sense of duty stems from this fraternal love. This sort of love and loyalty can be seen in other members of his company, hence reinforcing the idea that this devotion to oneís fellow brother is actually a defining characteristic of the Trojan people rather than just Aeneas himself. Palinurus is a prime example of an individual who placed the safety of his fellow Trojans ahead of his own (p. 155). He died while attempting to navigate Aeneasí ship safely through rough waters; even in the Underworld, his concern for the well-being of Aeneas and the other Trojans over his own eternal fate is astounding. Nisus, too, was overcome with anger and remorse for his fallen comrade Euryalus and succumbed to emotional fury in his drive for vengeance (p. 275-6). Although Nisus could have contributed much more to the war-effort by rejoining the ranks of Aeneas, instead his fraternal love for Euryalus prompted a suicidal rush at Volcens, the Latin troop-leader who killed his friend. In this latter example, one might wonder if Nisus lost his sense of duty to his Trojan people by sacrificing his life in a rash impulse to avenge the life of another. On the other hand, this entire scene was so touching that one admires the love that these Trojan soldiers have for each other.

Such a display of brotherly affection between Nisus and Euryalus might help explain why Aeneas killed Turnus in the heat of emotional rage. Both the stranded Greek sailor and Lausus killed Trojan men, but neither of them possessed a trophy so blatant, or antagonistic, as did Turnus. Metaphorically speaking, the swordbelt of Pallas that Turnus wore as a war-trophy acted as a red flag flashing before the eyes of a raging bull. Aeneasís love for Pallas created a fury so powerful that he even dedicated his kill to his dead friend by crying out: "This would will come from Pallas: Pallas make this offering and from your criminal blood exacts his due." (p. 402, l. 1292-4) Given these facts, it seems as if fraternal love actually holds a greater weight than romantic love for Aeneas; for in the case with Dido, duty prevailed, while in the case with Pallas, emotion prevailed.

Now if one could rationalize Aeneasí cold-blooded killing of Turnus by attributing his behavior to intense love, there are other instances in The Aeneid that cause the reader to question his sense of duty to others who were not enemies of the Trojans. For instance, if we turn to the attack on Latinusí city near the end of the epic, the analysis of the impulses behind Aeneasí warrior-like behavior is not so straightforward. One can understand how the war between Turnus and Aeneas engendered hatred between the two parties, since Turnus was clearly a threat and the initial aggressor. However, Latinus accepted Aeneas as the one fated to both marry his daughter and rule his kingdom; he graciously opened his city to the Trojans, welcoming them to Italy (p. 204-5). Furthermore, the Trojans approached Latinus in a very peaceful, almost obsequious, manner by claiming that they ask only for "a modest settlement" in Italy and that they "bring harm to no one" (p. 203). Aeneas even swore to King Latinus that he would "not make Italians underlings to Trojans. [Ö] Let both nations, both unconquered, both subject to equal laws, commit themselves to an eternal union." (p. 374, l. 255-9)

Hence, one finds it harder to justify the Trojan attack on King Latinus given the circumstances of this peaceful pact between both nations. The violent tone of Aeneasí words as he gave the command to besiege Latinusí city contrasts greatly with the promises of peace and prosperity he gave earlier. In fact, Latinus did not attack the Trojans at all, but rather it was the uncooperative nature of Turnus and his armies that brought about Aeneasí decision to attack the city. He himself said: "Unless our enemies accept our yoke and promise to obey us, on this day I shall destroy their town, root of this war, soul of Latinusí kingdom." (p. 388, l. 771-81) A farmer puts a yoke around the neck of an ox to plow the fields. Is this subservient metaphor an accurate definition of Trojan equality? If Aeneas demands that everyone must obey the decrees of the Trojans, I sincerely doubt that the Trojans would be subjected to the same laws. Rather, it appears as if Aeneas would rather have a kingdom for his Trojan brethren that consists of a conglomerate of subservient, conquered nations. One could then logically ask, does Aeneas keep his promise with Latinus in not making his people slaves of the Trojans? Was his attack on the kingdom of Latinus a momentary lapse of honor and duty or a permanent transition in his treatment of the Italian people? One only needs to examine the glance at the power of Rome in Virgilís day, or even in the days of Jospehusí Jewish Wars, to see how hated the Romans were by those whom they have conquered and enslaved. Indeed, Rome became a great empire with many colonies and ruled by a powerful and reputably ruthless military. Therefore, it would not be terribly erroneous to conclude that Aeneas and his descendants did indeed break their promises for peace and equality with the Italian people. Although most agree that the war with Turnus and Latinus is fictitious, perhaps as a story concerned with the founding of the Rome, it provides some historical or sociological explanation for the evolution of a cruel Roman imperialistic empire.

So in the end, I suppose the real question would be: "As an ever-evolving character, did Aeneas permanently lose his compassion and humanitarian nature, only to evolve into a malicious despot in the end?" Virgil does not give a clear answer to this question, but given the development of events in the epic poem, as well as the historical facts of Roman Imperialism, one could safely conclude that Aeneas most likely did break his promise to King Latinus. The Aeneas that saved the Danaan sailor and honored the body of Lausus the Latin is not the same Aeneas that attacked Latinus and murdered Turnus. Consequently, one could also confidently conclude that Aeneas did not honor Turnusí last request for his body to be returned to his father for a proper burial, although Achilleus eventually did just so concerning the body of Hektor. Driven constantly by passion and emotion throughout his journeys, it would seem that Aeneas retained, if not strengthened, his sense of duty and fraternal love for his fellow Trojan, but on the other hand lost his sense of duty and respect for his fellowman.