Boundaries, Mortal and Divine: Thoughts on Aeneid Book I

In my previous post, I mentioned how Juno bribed Aeolus to convince him that he should release his captive winds to destroy Aeneas’ ships. Fortunately for our hero, Neptune, the god of the sea, realizes what is happening. He is absolutely furious that Juno and Aeolus have dared to cause such disruption and chaos within what should be his realm, the ocean. He demands that the winds pay for their crimes, and asserts his authority over the seas: “Get on your way and be quick. And relay these words to your ruler: / Ocean’s High Command and the savage Trident of Office / Weren’t allotted to him but to me“(Aen. I.137-9).

This has to do with the very Roman concern regarding proper boundaries and the lawful use of one’s assigned office. No matter what position a Roman official holds, he should attempt to stay within his appropriate political and legal boundaries. Julius Caesar, as governor of Gaul, was permitted to command armies and use military force to maintain control of the province, but that is the only region in which he has such authority. Forced into a confrontation with both the Senate and his rival, Pompey, Caesar in 49 BC crossed the Rubicon River and entered Italy, beyond what should’ve been the legal and political boundaries of his office.

He may have justified this by saying that he was only responding to an illegal act on the part of the Senate/Pompey: after the tribune Mark Antony had vetoed the senatorial decree declaring Caesar a public enemy, he was threatened with violence and forced to leave the city of Rome, despite the long-standing tradition/law that any man holding the office of tribune is sacrosanct and cannot be harmed. Even so, Caesar’s march on Rome remained a significant breach of legal boundaries.

The idea that boundaries are important to the Romans extends back the mythological origins of the city, to the moment when Romulus killed his brother Remus. Remus, by leaping over the walls of Rome, had insulted both the legal authority of Romulus and the sovereign boundaries of the new city, and so was killed by his brother. According to the Fasti, the poem about the Roman calendar by the poet Ovid, Romans presented offerings to the god of boundaries, Terminus, during an annual festival taking place on February 23. As for the proper use of offices, also a sort  of legal boundary, the governors of Roman provinces were often known to use their offices and armies for their own personal gain, using such tactics as bribery and extortion.

So, back to the Aeneid. Neptune’s office grants him legal authority over the sea. Juno is, of course, the goddess of marriage, and so that is her domain, while Aeolus’ position comes with the duty to guard the winds and prevent their escape. Neptune uses his office to maintain order and control over the ocean, but Juno misuses her office, granting a marriage/bribe to Aeolus for her own personal gain. Aeolus subsequently shirks his duties and disrupts the legal sovereignty of Neptune’s realm. Juno and Aeolus have overstepped their boundaries and have essentially taken “illegal” or “corrupt” actions for their own gain. This, I think, helps to establish Juno as the divine antagonist of the epic.

Neptune, by his authority, restores order to the raging seas and rescues Aeneas’ ships, and Vergil follows this with one of the more famous extended metaphors of the Aeneid:

Much the same happens within a great nation, where lawlessness often
Bursts into riots, where people become mobs savage with passion:
Firebrands, stones, start flying through air (fury furnishes weapons).
Then, if they happen to glimpse a man worth their respect for his righteous
Conduct, they’re silenced. They prick up their ears and await his instructions.
He, with his words, brings passions to heel, lulls panting to calmness.

—Aeneid I.148-53.

What does this metaphor tells us? Are we meant to think that the masses of ordinary people are prone to lawlessness and require decent, respectable men to control them? Perhaps, but think of what caused the seas to turn so violent: the interference and manipulations on the part of those who would dare to abuse the powers of their office. So, while good and righteous men can act as great leaders to the people, helping them to be calm and orderly, men in positions of power can also be lawless in their own right, using dishonest manipulations and illegal maneuvers for their own gain.

Aeneas and his men escape the storm, with Neptune’s help, and arrive on the shores of North Africa, near Carthage. Then, we have a scene in which Venus, the goddess of love and the mother of Aeneas, looks at all the great suffering her son is going through. She goes to Jupiter and reminds him of what he has promised: that Aeneas will arrive in Italy and become the progenitor of the great Roman line. The father of the gods basically says, “Don’t worry, I didn’t forget!” He rattles off a long list of future events and predicts the birth of Romulus and Remus from Aeneas’ line, the rise of an unnamed Caesar/Julius, likely Augustus, and the creation of an endless empire.

There’s an interesting moment when Venus appears to Aeneas, but she is disguised as a young Phoenician huntress. She gives him some useful information about the ruler of Carthage, Dido, and gives him a bit of encouraging news: the rest of his companions, thought lost in the storm, have arrived safely. Aeneas is only able to recognize her right as she vanishes, and he says:

“You’re cruel too! Oh how often you toy with me, crafting illusions!
Why? I’m your son! Why can’t we ever link our right hands together,
Why are we never allowed to hear genuine questions and answers?’

Aeneid I.407-9

This relationship between Aeneas and his mother—between a mortal hero and his or her divine parent—is incredibly strange and fascinating to me. What would it have been like, for Aeneas, to grow up without a mother to take care of him? His mother watches over him from a great distance, protecting him and ensuring the fulfillment of his destiny, but she cannot be “close” to him as a human mother would be. Venus does not nurture him, touch his hand to comfort him, or even speak honestly to him as a close family member would. What would it be like to be told of the greatness of your mother knowing that you would never feel this connection? Would the expectation of needing to be a great hero because of his divine blood ever bother Aeneas, I wonder? Would anyone ever question his birth and suggest that his “missing” parent was not a goddess but someone of less than reputable origin?

These sort of concerns are actually addressed in the young adult book series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan. In this series, the Greek gods and goddesses have moved into the modern age and have made America their home, but as they did in the old days, they continue to have children with mortals. As these children grow up, they face the struggle of not fitting in, of not knowing who their mother/father was, of being raised by single parents, or of being targeted by the attacks of mythological creatures. In the style of young adult fantasy novels, these teenagers eventually find out who their parents are, learn how to use their powers, and come together to go on quests and fight monsters.

I actually quite like these books, despite the juvenile style and attitude of the early installments. They reinvent ancient myths into modern contexts and deal with a few interesting concerns, especially that strange relationship between a hero and his or her divine parent. The main conflict of the series is actually caused by the cruel tendency of the gods to abandon their mortal children instead of accepting them.

As a side note, the Heroes of Olympus, the newer series that continues the story, greatly improves on the writing of the Percy Jackson series, by getting rid of the juvenile first-person perspective and switching to a much more mature third-person perspective. Because these are young adult novels, they tend to deal with the fun and adventurous side of the Greek myths to appeal to younger readers: fighting fantastic beasts, collecting magical items, and traveling to strange places. I would love to see a more mature story of this type, placing the Greco-Roman myths into the modern world (which Neil Gaiman’s American Gods does not do), that deals with the serious themes that we see in the epics or the tragedies, but I suppose I’ll have to stick with reading the original poems and plays themselves. Besides, I think that it definitely is a great idea to have a series of books that can get young readers introduced to classical myths early on.

Well, that was a bit of a digression from the Aeneid. Next time, after Aeneas arrives at Carthage and meets Dido, Venus takes a few strange moves to “help” her son out that I found somewhat difficult to understand. Does the “protection” that Venus grant to Aeneas do more harm than good? We’ll talk about all of that in our next installment.

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