Priam and Pyrrhus - Sample Essay
The Aeneid on the other hand has difficult distinctions between who deserves their suffering and who does not. The entirety of Book 2 is packed full of pathos. There is no reference to the Trojans deserving their doom, instead saying that “divine Fate” and “the minds of the gods” were “set against” them. We are certain from the start that the Trojans have no chance of surviving the night. The descriptions of episodes such as Priam and Pyrrhus, the weeping women in Pergamum, the death of Creusa, and Laocoon with his sons all convey such massive pity that we are left with a sense of revenge at the end of the book and hatred for the Achaeans.
The pathos evoked even makes us question the gods (“this was the last day of a doomed people and we spent it adorning the shrines of the gods” A. 2. 248) and our thoughts return to the Proem (“Can there be so much anger in the hearts of the heavenly gods? ” A. 1. 11). But we still have no answer. The didactic message within the entirety of the Aeneid is that the Romans reading Virgil’s work must live up to the sacrifices made in the poem so that Rome might survive.
The more pitiable the scene, the more the expectation is on the contemporary reader to be a good Roman citizen to make up for what they suffered (“So heavy was the cost of founding the Roman race” A. 1. 34). The literary techniques employed by the two poets, Virgil and Homer, include the use of similes at moments of intense drama. These include scenes of pathos and torment and help to magnify our natural pity by appealing to yet another kind of compassion we are prone to, usually our sympathy for animals. Dido’s love is frequently referred to that of a “wounded deer”, the Ithacan crew’s death at the hands of Polyphemus to helpless “puppies”.
Virgil’s most impressive tool in evoking pity though is his reference to the family of the murdered person, and usually to the father/son bond. This is used to great effect in the Pyrrhus and Priam scene in Book 2 (“defiling a father’s face” A. 2. 539) and also the references to Evander when Pallas is killed (“I wish his father were here to see it” A. 10. 445). Virgil even takes an interlude to tell us of the pain of Evander when he receives the body of his son (“A father should not survive his son” A. 11. 160). Family references are also employed with Dido’s death.
She frequently laments that she did not keep “faith with the ashes of Sychaeus”. Her thoughts of suicide are also observed by the unknowing sister Anna, who is eventually the first to be at her dead sister’s side (“tearing her face and beating her breast, calling out her sister’s name” A. 4. 674). As Aeneas drives his sword through Lausus’ chest and through his tunic, a reference is made to how it was his mother that made it. The pain therefore does not just touch Lausus but will fall to his mother also.
With Aeneas’ words such as “Why do you take on tasks beyond your strength” the insinuation is made that this is a boy fighting way past his own capabilities. His youthful depiction outweighs any heroism. Even Aeneas’ murderous “anger” is dissolved in pity as his thoughts turn to the motive for Lausus’ ill-fated attack (his attempts to defend his father, despite Mezentius’ dishonourable character) and also his identification with his love for his own father Ascanius. The technique is masterful, as Virgil makes us understand the reversal of places and a connection is made between both killer and victim.
Homer makes no connection between Antinous and Odysseus for example, and the hero feels no remorse for what he has done. It had to be done. But in the Aeneid, the death was just the felling of an innocent life, not due to crimes committed, but just because he became entangled in the terrible war. If we try and answer Virgil’s enduring question (can the gods justify all this? ) we are at a loss. The pains of Dido were brought about by the goddess Venus, who wishes to look after Aeneas, at the expense of all others (“I am afraid of Juno’s hospitality” A. 1. 671). The fate of the book is ruled by favouritism.
Camilla is an extreme favourite of Diana, who releases her wrath on the killer Arruns. Yet Arruns would not have ‘struck lucky’ if it wasn’t for the assistance of Apollo, who was appealed to by the cowardly Arruns, referring to the Trojan honours given to him. Juturna excuses Turnus from the battle at the expense of the thousands of combatants who die whilst she elongates his life in futility. The gods are working for their mortals but only because of their own feelings for them, not understanding them. Juno saves Turnus from the battlefield at great distress to the hero (“thanking no one for his safety” A. 10. 666).
Venus assists her son but never consoles him or comes to him in person in his distress (“you too are cruel” A. 1. 408). The Gods work on their own rules and whilst Hercules is not allowed to help his favourite Pallas (“helpless tears streamed from his eyes” A. 10. 468), Juno gets others to assist her in her aims, such as Allecto and Juturna. The quarrels of the Gods, not justice causes men’s ills in the poem. Whilst the Zeus of the Odyssey is exasperated that the mortals wrongfully attribute their suffering to the Gods’ lack of intervention and assistance, the Jupiter of the Aeneid turns “his eyes away” from the suffering on the battle field.
The Gods of the Aeneid both cause suffering to those such as Dido, and do not give help to those who need it like Pallas. They do not comprehend mortals and can not relate to them in the Aeneid. They treat them more like pets than favourites. But contrast this with one such as Athene in the Odyssey, who smiles at her favourite’s attempts at deceiving her since she understands him so well (“You were always an obstinate, cunning and irrepressible intriguer… we both know how to get our way” O. 13. 293).
The justice and morality of the Gods in the Odyssey, even by those such as the unruly Poseidon, who still asks Zeus before destroying the ship of the Phaeacians, and is well within his rights when he pesters Odysseus across the oceans, due to the blinding of Polyphemus and Odysseus’ exultation over him afterwards (spreading kleos). But the Aeneid is no learning poem. Virgil is not intending to teach us but to move us. Mortals are caught up in the juggernaut of Rome’s creation and are trampled underfoot. The reader must take the suffering and make Rome live up to the sacrifices.