Death and Destruction in Virgil’s Aeneid

by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi (March 2011)

One of the most striking features of the Aeneid, as opposed to the Homeric poems on which Virgil’s epic is extensively based, is the much greater level of pathos the poet arouses in the reader for the sense of loss that pervades the work. To take just one example, consider the various ways in which the deaths of both Trojan and Italian warriors are described during the general fighting that ensues following the Latins’ violation of the treaty between Aeneas and Latinus. For instance, we have the extended obituary of the Trojan ally Menoetes, an Arcadian slaughtered by Turnus. He is said to have ‘iuvenem exosum nequiquam bella’ (‘detested war in vain during his youth’- 12.517) and was a poor man who did not know ‘nota potentum munera’ (‘of the responsibilities of powerful men’- 12.519-20). Likewise, with respect to the Latin priest and warrior Cupencus we read:-

‘nec di texere Cupencum Aenea veniente sui: dedit obvia ferro pectora, nec misero clipei mora profuit aerei’, (‘Nor did Cupencus’ gods cover him as Aeneas came near: he gave his breast to his sword, and the delay of the bronze shield was of no use for the poor wretch’- 12.539-41).

Virgil’s message is clear. Death in warfare makes no distinction between Trojans and Italians, rich and poor. It is the same for all, and equally tragic. It is not only Turnus and the Latins who cause death and destruction. Aeneas is responsible for the deaths of many as well. Thus, a key question arises, one of the greatest sources of controversy over interpretation of the poem. What consolation, or justification, is there for all the death and destruction the poem describes? Does such consolation or justification exist in the Aeneid at all?

Indeed, it could be argued that there is no consolation or justification for the sense of loss in the poem, but ultimately condemnation of the imperial project that is supposed to be Rome’s destiny according to Fate, the will of Jupiter, who tells Venus that he will give ‘imperium sine fine’ (‘empire without end’- 1.279) to the future Roman race. If such a view is correct, then the Aeneid is actually a disguised attack on Augustus and the beginning of the Principate.

A line of evidence that could be advanced in favour of this viewpoint is the tendency for prophecies in the Aeneid to be deliberately misleading, primarily to suit the rhetorical needs of the one who utters the prophecy. A prominent example is the prophecy of Jupiter to Venus in the first book, mentioned above. Jupiter declares that Aeneas ‘bellum ingens geret Italia populosque feroces contundet moresque viris et moenia ponet’ (‘he will wage a huge war in Italy, subdue fierce peoples, and establish customs and a city for men’- 1.263-4). This, of course, presents Aeneas as winning a clear-cut victory with great triumph. Unfortunately, however, the reality turns out to consist of much more hardship for the Trojans, including the loss of Pallas, who will be for Aeneas what Patroclus was for Achilles. As O’Hara points out, the prophecy is designed to console Venus as she laments the toils endured by her son as he is shipwrecked off the coast of Carthage. [1] Nonetheless, it is deceptive consolation that conceals the whole truth.

Similarly, one could point to how Aeneas suppresses feelings of pity for those he interacts with, only to express sorrow ‘too late’ (to use Lyne’s words- [2]). That is, his feelings of regret come out only when what is lost can no longer be retrieved. For example, when Dido pleads with him to stay in Carthage after discovering that he intends to sail for Italy and abandon her, Aeneas expresses no sense of understanding the intensity of Dido’s love for him, neither in terms of body language or words. Instead, he affirms that ‘me si fata…paterentur…sponte mea componere curas, urbem Troiam primum dulcisque meorum reliquias colerem’ (‘if the fates were allow me to deal with my concerns through my own free will, I would be first taking care of the city of Troy and the sweet remains of my kinsfolk’- 4.340-1). In other words, he would never have come to Carthage in the first place if he had been allowed to stay in Troy by fate. Dido in response remarks that Aeneas did not sigh while she cried or even look at her (4.369), and runs off, leaving him as he ‘multa parantem dicere’ (‘is preparing to say many things’- 4.390-1). This is what Richard Heinze called the ‘cut-off’ technique, and his view that it is employed to allow progression of the narrative is valid, but it also illustrates how Aeneas has given a cold response that displays no pity for Dido’s state of mind, which leads to her suicide after Aeneas sails away from Carthage with his fleet. His response may well be in line with Stoic philosophy (promoted by Augustus as a value system to instill in the plebs) that condemned emotions of passion, including pity. Nevertheless, later in the Underworld Aeneas encounters Dido’s ghost. Expressing pity for her death, he insists: ‘nec credere quivi hunc tantum tibi me discessu ferre dolorem’ (‘I could not believe that I brought you this such great pain by my departure’- 6.463-4). Dido rejects Aeneas’ entreaties with stony hate, but it is evident that Aeneas was capable of a more humane response to Dido when she was still living. Had he shown some compassion, she might well have not become so hateful towards Aeneas.

Now, more than one interpretation can be drawn from this episode. One opinion that can be inferred is that Virgil is trying to show that the world in which Aeneas lives is harsh, and there are few precious moments to cherish what one has. When those moments have passed, it is of little use to express sorrow over what cannot be recovered. Hence, Aeneas shows a weakness in his character in not thinking about how his words might affect others, only realising his mistakes too late. Therefore, no consolation or justification is offered for the suffering of Dido and others as such suffering cannot be justified or alleviated. Rather, the imperial project, and the sense of loss accompanying it, is to be condemned. Alternatively, we could regard Aeneas’ Stoic response as morally right, and that pity, love and other emotions of passion are distractions from and inimical to true pietas. Dido herself has been guilty of the passion of wild love and has consequently been neglectful of her duty as queen of Carthage. As a result of her passion, Carthage comes to a standstill as ‘non coeptae adsurgunt turres, non arma iuventus exercet’ (‘towers begun do not rise, the youth does not train in arms’- 4.85-6). In addition, Dido admits that she is at fault for forgetting her fidelity to her deceased husband Sychaeus by having an affair with Aeneas, and concealing her ‘culpam’ (‘sin’) under the name of marriage (4.172).

The latter opinion, if correct, would provide justification for much of the death and destruction described in the Aeneid, in that Aeneas’ adversaries are guilty of moral failings and acting against divine will. Thus, their suffering can be explained as part of a tale of morality. One notable advocate of such a view vis-à-vis Turnus, Aeneas’ Rutulian antagonist, is H.P. Stahl. Instead of seeing Turnus as a tragic figure who, whilst going against the will of the gods, later becomes much more sympathetic, Stahl argues that Turnus is throughout portrayed as a villain undeserving of any sympathy. One unsympathetic feature of Turnus, Stahl contends, is his inconsistency. For example, he promises at the Latins’ council that he will face Aeneas alone in single combat (11.442), yet he actually goes out into a valley to lay an ambush against Aeneas and his men, described as follows:-

‘est curvo anfractu valles, accommoda fraudi armorumque dolis, quam densis frondibus atrum urget utrimque latus, tenuis quo semita ducit angustaeque ferunt fauces aditusque maligni’ (‘there is a valley with sweeping curve, suitable for deceit and tricks of weapons, which is hemmed in on both sides by dense foliage. A narrow path, narrow openings and awkwards approaches lead to it’- 11.522-25).

Notice how the vocabulary emphasises the unheroic deceit, contrary to the heroic code Turnus purports to honour. This includes words like ‘fraus’ (deceit) ‘dolus’ (trick) and ‘angustus’ (narrow). One cannot help being reminded of the trickery that Odysseus employed with the wooden horse to bring about the fall of Troy- deceit that is harshly condemned by Aeneas in his account of the destruction of the city by the Greeks.

Stahl also contrasts the deaths of the young warriors Pallas and Lausus at the hands of Turnus and Aeneas respectively. Tellingly, Turnus proclaims: ‘solus ego in Pallanta feror, soli mihi Pallas debetur; cuperem ipse parens spectator adesset’ (‘I alone attack Pallas, Pallas is owed to me alone; I should want his own father to be present as a spectator’- 11.442-3). This shows that Turnus is intent on attacking Pallas beforehand and only wishes to kill him to cause Evander grief and make him suffer. On the other hand, Aeneas fights Lausus because the latter confronts him. Unlike Turnus, he does not strip Lausus of his armour, and takes pity on him as he sees him dying. He pays his respects, asking rhetorically ‘quid tibi nunc, miserande puer, pro laudibus istis…Aeneas…dabit?’ (‘What will Aeneas now give you, poor boy, in recognition of your honourable deeds?’- 10.825-6). This differs markedly from Turnus’ attitude towards Pallas, who is not granted the dignity of taking his courage seriously on his first day in battlle. [3] Stahl goes on to argue that even when Aeneas kills Turnus on seeing Pallas’ baldric as Turnus begs for mercy, we should subscribe to Servius’ interpretation that ‘omnis intentio ad Aeneae pertinet gloriam’ (‘all intent belongs to the glory of Aeneas’- ad 12.940). After all, Evander himself has urged Aeneas to take revenge on Turnus (11.178-9), and so Aeneas displays true pietas in observing Evander’s bidding. Stahl also points to what he sees as Turnus’ unattractive inconsistency even in his last moments: for though he admits at first ‘equidem merui nec deprecor’ (‘I have indeed deserved this, and ask for no mercy’- 12.931), he then asks Aeneas to spare him out of pity for his old father Daunus (12.934). This is the same Turnus who rejected Latinus’ entreaties for him not to fight Aeneas out of concern for Daunus, requesting that Latinus allow him to ‘letum…pro laude pacisci’ (‘barter death for glory’- 12.49). In effect, Turnus now wishes to choose the unheroic path of surviving rather than dying honourably.

One could apply similar logic to the Italians in general, who are often viewed as the new Trojans in books 7-12 in what is sometimes called ‘Virgil’s Iliad’, whereas the Trojans themselves become the new Greeks. As evidence, we could cite the Italians’ attack on the Trojan camp in the ninth book whilst Aeneas is absent on a diplomatic mission, as well as the violation of the treaty between Aeneas and Latinus by the Latins. In this context, it should be mentioned that Aeneas urges restraint when the treaty is first broken, imploring his men thus: ‘quo ruitis? quaeve ista repens discordia surgit? o cohibete iras!’ (‘Whither do you rush? Or what is this sudden discord that is rising? O constrain your anger!’- 12.313-4). On the other hand, Turnus ‘subita spe fervidus ardet’ (‘feverishly burns with sudden hope’-12.325) and takes advantage of the ensuing chaos and slaughter as many Trojans as possible. He is a man of the old order driven, like Dido, by intense emotions and passions, and accordingly must be done away with.

However, I find Stahl’s characterisation of both Turnus and the Latins in general to be overly simplistic. It seems most implausible that Virgil would write an epic just to provide the simple moral lesson that it is better to be sane than motivated by madness. Indeed, there were a variety of traditions about Aeneas’ arrival and settlement in Latium. Livy, for example, recounted in the first book of his history of Rome that Aeneas was happily married to Lavinia. Then, the Trojans formed an alliance with the Latins to defeat the evil Turnus, and there is good reason to believe that this tradition was popular in Virgil’s time. Now, if Virgil had just wanted to portray a story of good versus evil, with the justification and consolation for the death and destruction in the poem being the defeat of malevolent forces, he could have simply used this story for books 7-12 of the Aeneid.

Yet this is not the case. Rather, Virgil uses the tradition recounted by Cato the Elder of a pan-Italian resistance to the Trojans, whom they view as foreign invaders. Of course, their cause is presented as being misguided, but the emphasis here is on misguided. The Italians are not meant to be a sinister force acting against divine will out of evil intentions. Here, historical context is important. Virgil did want to model the second half of the Aeneid extensively on the Iliad and the Trojan War, but he also wanted to make the conflict between Italians and Trojans as a kind of civil war. No wonder, then, that Jupiter proclaims in the council of gods ‘rex Iuppiter omnibus idem. fata viam invenient’ (‘King Jupiter has the same attitude to all. Fate will find the way’- 10.112-3). Jupiter is in a way feigning neutrality as it is he who sends the Dira to aid Aeneas in his final duel with Turnus, which the former must win in accordance with Fate. However, Jupiter never intervenes overtly to provide help of any real significance to either Trojans or Italians during the general fighting.

The fundamental problem with Stahl’s analysis is not so much what he accounts for as what he omits. In his overview of Turnus, he ignores the Rutulian prince’s behaviour before Allecto casts rage into him. He initially rejects her exhortations for him to take up arms against Aeneas, being described as ‘mocking’ Allecto in disguise as a seer (7.435) and insisting that ‘bella viri pacemque gerent quis bella gerenda’ (‘men will wield wars and peace, whose business war is’- 7.444). Turnus is indeed an impetuous figure by nature, but his response here shows that he would not have been quite so furious had not Juno used Allecto to arouse madness within him to further her agenda in attempting to impede Fate. Also, when Turnus realises that in pursuing Trojan stragglers he has allowed Aeneas to attack the city of the Latins and thereby cause intense suffering for the city’s inhabitants (12.617-19), he admits that he has behaved dishonourably in not confronting Aeneas earlier and asks rhetorically: ‘usque adeone mori miserum est?’ (‘Is it really so sad to die at this point?’- 12.646). As the poem progresses, therefore, Turnus becomes much more sympathetic, and so he is a more complex character than Stahl suggests. Other points that could be made in response to Stahl are that Pallas was eager to fight Turnus anyway and strip him of his armour or die, proclaiming that he would either ‘raptis laudabor opimis aut leto insigni’ (‘be praised for having seized the spoils or for an honourable death’- 10.449). Was it really so wrong for Turnus to choose to confront Pallas if the latter wanted to face him anyway?

Moreover, if Turnus is a villain, then Aeneas is not the flawless hero that Stahl imagines him to be. Notably, Stahl seems to have forgotten Aeneas’ murderous rampage that follows the death of Pallas, undoubtedly based on Achilles’ aristeia that arises when the hero learns of his best friend Patroclus’ death. Aeneas himself takes four sons each of Ufens and Sulmo alive to be sacrificed later at Pallas’ funeral (10.517-19). To Roman authors like Cicero, such practices were unequivocally barbaric and inexcusable. Aeneas also kills Magus even when the latter supplicates him (10.523 ff.) for clemency. In this act, Aeneas forgets the principle his father Anchises enjoined upon him as the Roman way of war: ‘parcere subiectis et debellare superbos’ (‘to spare the subdued and war down the proud’- 6.853). Magus, in being ‘supplex’ (10.523), was indeed ‘subiectus’, yet Aeneas failed to spare him. I could go on, but suffice to say that Stahl’s explanation of the Aeneid as a simple moral tale, often associated with the traditional ‘pro-Augustan’ school of interpretation, is inadequate and fails to provide adequate consolation or justification for death and destruction in the Aeneid.

Instead, let us turn to another theory that can take into account the pathos and provide what I feel is sufficient consolation and justification for its existence in the poem. The scholar C. Bandera has noted what he deems to be two levels of sacrifice in the Aeneid. The first is the sacrifice that is part of the rituals demonstrating pietas towards the gods, but the second is the more general level of sacrifice that pervades the poem. [4] The latter is most aptly summarised during Neptune’s dialogue with Venus, when he affirms that for Aeneas to reach the harbours of Avernus one man will have to die: namely, Palinurus, Aeneas’ steersman. Neptune’s key statement is ‘unum pro multis dabitur caput’ (‘the one head will be given for the many’- 5.815). Thus, Palinurus must die so that all may survive. This idea of one being singled out to be victimised reminds us of scapegoats who are preyed upon by the people during times of mass hysteria. The question of why Palinurus is singled out for destruction now arises. Palinurus parallels Aeneas in many ways: both are seen despairing in a sea-storm during their first appearances (1.92 ff. and 3.192 ff.). Likewise, their second appearances are marked by a contrast from their previous despair. Aeneas urges his men to look forward to the future in Latium as he tries to console his companions (1.205-07), Palinurus is next seen arising ‘haud segnis’ (‘alert’- 3.513) and, on surveying the sky, rouses the men to sail. Unlike Aeneas, however, Palinurus believes that the Trojans should head wherever ‘Fortuna’ (‘chance’, whether good or bad) should take them (5.17-23), rather than relying on Fate and the will of the gods. Palinurus is therefore portrayed as someone who relies on what is untrustworthy, and so must be done away with for Aeneas to complete the final stage of his voyage to Italy. In fact, Palinurus admits to Somnus that he was often ‘caeli…deceptus fraude sereni’ (‘tricked by the deceit of a false sky’- 5.851). Further progress must be based on knowledge of Fate as given by Anchises (6.759), a surer guide than Fortuna.

This principle of the general level of sacrifice is equally valid for accounting for the destruction of Troy, and the death of Turnus. Commentators have long puzzled over why Jupiter willed for Troy to be marked for destruction and for Aeneas to found the future Roman race. The answer, I think, lies in the same principle of ‘unum pro multis dabitur caput’. Troy and the world of the Iliad represent the old heroic value system that involved an endless cycle of violence involving slights to one’s timh (‘honour’) and to win kleoj (‘glory’) in order to be remembered amongst future generations. True, the Iliad is a poem that focuses on Achilles’ mhnij (‘wrath’), and by the end of the epic, he is no longer in a state of mad rage over how Agamemnon dishonoured him and the death of Patroclus at the hands of Hector. Yet he is still liable to be provoked, and still eager to fight to win kleoj. When Priam, on reconciling and receiving Hector’s body to be buried, asks Achilles if he can see the corpse inside the hut, Anchilles warns him: ‘mhketi nun m’ ereqize…mh se, geron, oud’ auton eni klisihsin easw’ (‘do not provoke me any further…lest, old man, I spare you not even in these huts’- Iliad 24.560-69). Achilles is no longer in a state of mhnij, but he is still quick to anger as before.

The Aeneid, however, tells the story of a man, unique in his pietas, singled out to carry the burden of founding the Roman race. It particularly underlines the need for one side to put an end to the cycle of violence by granting clementia in warfare. It is this principle of granting mercy to those who are subdued that will eventually lead to a global pax Romana, a concept that will require Rome to conquer its enemies and impose peace by force. As Anchises puts it, ‘memento…paci imponere morem, parcere subiectis et debellare superbos’ (‘remember…to impose justice for peace, to spare the subdued and to war down the proud’- 8.851-3). Thus, a gradual progression to world peace is achieved under Roman rule and customs, and history progresses with sacrifice at the general level, whereby one is singled out that others may live. This is why Turnus is not to be spared even as he pleads for mercy. He is the last remnant of the old heroic order in Latium. Thus, to achieve a lasting peace between the Trojans and Latins and avoid committing genocide against the latter, Aeneas must take his life and send his soul to Tartarus. True, Aeneas is avenging the death of Pallas in killing Turnus, but there is no one who feels any need or obligation to take revenge on Aeneas for the death of Turnus. This explanation of progress through sacrifice of a scapegoat, unlike Stahl’s seemingly Manichaean view, does not detract from the pathos over the numerous lives that are lost and the accompanying destruction. Here, it should be noted that I disagree with those who argue that Aeneas ‘fails’ in his duty by killing Turnus at the end of the poem. Jupiter had already weighed the scales of Fate to come down against Turnus (12.725-27), so Turnus’ death was in accordance with Fate all along.

Incidentally, the notion of waging war to achieve peace is hardly an innovation of Virgil, or even unique to Roman thought. For instance, Cicero justified Roman imperialism on the grounds that the aim of war is to achieve peace and security, with magnanimity shown to conquered peoples where possible ‘pro salute communi’ (‘for the common good’- De Off. 1.62). Thus, the beliefs vis-à-vis waging warfare for conquest (with the mandate of Jupiter) as articulated in the Aeneid were just one of the ways in which Romans justified their imperial methods. Though Virgil, as Bandera points out, would not have identified with the Judaeo-Christian rejection of the need for a scapegoat that later became dominant in the West [5], a similar belief system to that of the Romans as regards imperialism exists in the traditional Islamic concept of jihad. That is, offensive warfare to subjugate infidels under the rule of Islamic law and thereby achieve a global peace through the global imposition and implementation of the Shari’a (whence the cliché of Islam as a religio pacis).

In short, the Aeneid is a poem that documents death and destruction in horrific detail, whether concerning the deaths of Trojan or Italian warriors during the conflict in Latium, the fall of Troy at the hands of the Greeks, or the tragic deaths of Dido and Turnus. However, consolation and justification are offered for the intense level of suffering. Here, we combine Bandera’s point regarding sacrifice on a general level (i.e. the scapegoat singled out for the common good, just like the Roman ideology of subordination of the individual to the collective state) and the notion of pax Romana. Yes, there is clear condemnation of being driven by wild passions, but the view of the Aeneid as a simple moral tale ignores the complexities of the characters and plot, besides not providing real justification and consolation for the death and destruction described. Ultimately, I come down on the side of the traditional pro-Augustan school of interpretation, but concede that the Harvard (or more modern ‘anti-Augustan’) school is right to emphasise that the pathos and sense of loss in the poem are things that cannot be ignored. These losses are indeed on a great scale and lamentable, but on aggregate the general human condition is improved by the gradual imposition of a global peace under Roman rule. That the Aeneid should advance such beliefs ought not to surprise us, given that the ideology of imperialism to achieve peace was neither unique to the Aeneid nor Roman thought in general. At the same time, we cannot help detecting an element of uncertainty on the author’s part about the future after Augustus’ reign, as the frequently misleading prophecies in the Aeneid reflect.



[1]- O’Hara, (1990), pg. 138

[2]- Lyne, (1987), pg. 168

[3]- Stahl,ed. Raaflaub and Toher (1990), pg.182

[4]- Bandera, Arethusa 14 (1981), pg. 224

[5]- Ibid., pg. 237


W.A. Camps, An Introduction to Virgil’s Aeneid (1969), ch. 4

J. Griffin, Virgil (1986), ch. 4

R.O.A.M. Lyne, ‘Vergil and the politics of war’, CQ 33 (1983), 188-203

R.O.A.M. Lyne, Further Voices in Vergil’s Aeneid (1987), ch. 3-4

C. Bandera, ‘Sacrificial levels in Vergil’s Aeneid’, Arethusa 14 (1981), 217-39

B.M.W. Knox, ‘The Serpent and the flame’, AJPh 71 (1950), 379-400

W.S.M. Nicoll, ‘The Sacrifice of Palinurus’, CQ 38 (1988), 459-72

J.O’Hara, Death and the Optimistic Prophecy in Vergil’s Aeneid (1990)

H.P. Stahl, ‘The Death of Turnus: Augustan Vergil and the political rival’, Between Republic and Empire (1990), 174-211

R.F. Thomas, ‘The Isolation of Turnus’, in H.P. Stahl (ed.), ‘Virgil’s Aeneid: Augustan epic and political context’ (1998), 271-302


Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Oxford University and an intern at the Middle East Forum.


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