Fate and Fury in The Aeneid

The Aeneid is a book about fate. This is a different kind of fate from what we see in Greek mythology, which is as inexorable as it is meaningless. Here the situation is just the reverse. First, there is a clear meaning, an arc of history tending toward the Pax Romana, which will bring law, order, and eternal peace to all the world. But this fate seems strangely fragile: it requires much hands-on attention from the gods, especially at first, and ultimately the outcome is decided by the human antagonists Aeneas and Turnus after Jove makes a showy declaration of his neutrality.

There is one character who does not seem to have a fate: Dido. She is doomed, she is tragic, but her death, which is “not fated or deserved” (Fagles trans.; Latin: “nec fato, merita nec”), catches the spiritual infrastructure unawares, so that Iris has to remove her spirit from her body rather than Proserpina. This fateless status is striking because the two female goddesses whose conflict determines the course of the plot — the pro-Trojan Venus and anti-Trojan Juno — have converged on Dido, both for their own reasons. Venus is playing the long game, trying to foment enmity between the Carthaginians and the proto-Romans, while Juno sees an opportunity to ally her beloved Carthaginians with the Trojans, cutting off the independent existence of the latter. It’s as though there are too many competing fates at work here, opening up the space for Dido’s own self-destructive agency.

The conflict between two female gods ends in the suicide of their human pawn, outside the bounds of fate and merit. The fact that the chain of fate can be broken by a surplus of female agency fits with the overall pattern of the plot, where it is above all feminine rage that threatens to disrupt fate. Juno is explicitly allied with the female Furies, carrying forward Achilles’ rage in a distinctly feminine key — not only in her own person, but in the Fury with which she inspires (or possesses) the new Achilles, Turnus. The whole Latian War is narrated under the sign of the Muse of Love, another intrusion of the feminine realm into matters of geopolitics.

If we compare Dido’s unfated death with Jove’s “may the best man win” hand-washing, I begin to wonder if we are to take the entire Latian War, including its brutal outcome, as a deviation from fate. Jove declares to Juno that she can delay but not fundamentally alter fate. The war is certainly a dramatic delay, and it is one that seems gratuitous, since Latinus and his family were quite content to fulfill prophecy by marrying Lavinia off to Aeneas before Juno injected her fury.

The edifice of fate is unstable indeed if virtually the whole action of the epic of Rome’s foundation and destiny is somehow contingent, a byway on the path of fate. And lest we think that we have rejoined the stream of destiny when Aeneas finally kills Turnus, we find that fury has infected our normally impassive hero, while Turnus gets the last word with his postmortem scream of defiance — perhaps an echo of Dido’s unfated death, which left her spirit unprepared for its journey. The poem is not just about fate, then, but about the conflict of between fate and fury, with its resentful refusal to submit, to forget about the past and move into the predestined future.

Aeneas’s impulsive murder of Turnus, who was willing to surrender, is motivated by a sudden reminder of the death of Pallas — a young man whose first name doubles as an epithet for Athena (which is used in that sense in Book I). Are we to hear an echo of the Eumenides, where Athena subjects the Furies once and for all to the court of justice that supercedes the cycle of vengeance? If so, it is a botched Eumenides, where unreflective violence cuts short negotiation and deliberation and where the force of Fury remains on the loose.

The destiny of Rome is stained from the very beginning with Fury — indeed, in The Aeneid, Rome is never founded in the present-tense of the text itself. And as Fagles points out in his translator’s note, much of the poem is precisely in the present tense. The rhetorical force of this is clear — it gives the poem a certain immediacy and vividness — but I wonder if it reflects an agenda to open up the reader’s present, to restore contingency and fragility to the destiny of Rome that Augustus has supposedly founded once and for all. The Fury of a betrayed ally or a colonized subject may derail that beautiful fate once and for all, showing Rome to be less pious and dutiful than callous and cruel.