The idea of piety in Ancient Rome is not the same idea of piety that we have today. To the Romans, piety, or “pietas” in Latin, describes a set of social constructs that governs what makes a respectable person. Piety encompasses one’s devotion to the gods, love for one’s country, respect for one’s family, and understanding of fate. These characteristics are essential for a great Roman leader, so there’s no question as to why Virgil calls Aeneas by “Pious Aeneas” in his epic The Aeneid. The mythical ancestor to Romulus and Remus should possess these qualities; otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to command the hearts of his men in their search for their new home.
If there are to be pious people in this world, there also must be the impious. Impiety is easily defined as the opposite of broad-reaching virtuousness. Fury, or “furor” in Latin, “connotes a frenzied derangement of the mind and spirit, something akin to madness,” in which the behavior of the individual is often brash, violent, or impulsive (Boyle 88). Those who are impious lead themselves to make foolish, uncharacteristic choices with severe consequences. In The Aeneid, characters in power such as Dido, Turnus, and Camilla find themselves giving in to their impious furor, ultimately hindering their own progress or leading to their demise. Virgil uses these stories of piety and impiety to paint a picture of the legendary history of Rome, inspiring his audience to admire Augustus, the heroic Roman leader of Virgil’s own time, and to legitimize Augustus’s rule.
Turnus appears in the seventh book of The Aeneid, and is introduced to us as Livina’s suitor, one who will eventually produce heirs for the throne of Latium. When Aeneas arrives in Latium, King Latinus promises him land for a new city as well as his daughter’s hand in marriage, following Anchises’s prophecy to have the daughter of Latinus marry a foreigner. Allecto, a Fury summoned by Juno, inspires Turnus to grow angry at his King’s decision, setting the seed if impiety within Turnus.
Over the course of the next four books, Turnus fights against Aeneas in a war for Lavinia’s hand. In Book IX, Turnus has assembled his troops to attack the Trojans and eventually find a way into their camp. Virgil notes that Turnus could have opened the Trojans’ gates to let in his troops, but that his erratic, furious behavior kept him from thinking clearly and strategically. Turnus then takes Pallas’s belt at the end of Book X, showing his reckless pride. This belt eventually leads to his death, because when Aeneas sees it he forgets his thoughts of sparing Turnus and flies into a furious rage, killing Turnus with a spear.
Turnus perhaps sealed his own fate when he defied his king’s wishes and continued to seek the hand of Lavinia. This lapse in piety led to a war that he could not win because Aeneas was destined to found a new city in Latium. It is worth mentioning, however, that Turnus is not a character entirely without piety. In fact, in the last book of the epic, as Aeneas is seizing an opportunity to attack the undefended city, Turnus hears the news of his queen’s suicide and sees his people’s suffering. This reminder of the pain he’s causing his own people by continuing this war provides a moment of clarity, a moment in which he could escape his impious fury. But just as quickly as Turnus comes to his senses, he gives in to his fury by challenging Aeneas in single combat. He knows that Aeneas must win, but he realizes his wrongdoings, succumbs to his fate and dies. In the end, he realizes his wrongdoing too late: his undesirable impiety was his biggest weakness. Any future leader must not behave as carelessly as Turnus did.
Dido is another central character who experiences a lapse in piety. While she was the queen of Tyre, her brother Pygmalion murdered her husband and compelled her to go with some of her citizens to found the city of Carthage. She vows not to marry again, in honor of her husband, and instead vows to place her priorities in governing. Dido is represented as a dedicated, and pious, leader. Her flaw is that she’s earned the epithet “infelix,” which is defined as “ill-starred, unfortunate, and unhappy,” (Covi 57).
This picture of a perfect ruler changes when Venus allows Dido to fall in love with Aeneas. Dido forgets her promise not to marry and grows close to Aeneas, but most importantly she begins to neglect her duties as a queen. She admits to her shortcomings, and therefore she accepts that she isn’t acting with piety. As Madeline Covi explains in her essay “Dido in Vergil’s Aeneid,” at this point in the text, “the language used in connection with Dido again suggests a guilty conscience: she is not moved specie famave (4.170)—but it must by implication be on her mind,” (58). In other words, the rumor of Dido’s “furtivum amorem,” or secret love, and its subsequent confirmation after her metaphorical marriage to Aeneas weigh heavily on her mind (Covi 59). Her people feel betrayed by her broken promises and her decreased attention to governing, ultimately a result of her failure to stay pious.
Dido, like Turnus, became aware of the mistakes that resulted in a lapse of piety. But also like Turnus, Dido realized her mistakes and did not correct her shortcomings. Following the trend of the impious, Dido begins at act impulsively when Aeneas tells her that he must leave her and follow his own destiny. Dido calls out to the gods, “may he never enjoy his realm and the light he yearns for, never, let him die before his day, unburied on some desolate beach,” cursing Aeneas, and asking for “war between all our peoples, all their children, endless war,” (Virgil 4.771-782) This impulsive curse would not have been uttered by Dido had she not succumbed to her fury. In fact, in the eyes of Virgil’s Roman audience, the careless Dido may have tragically doomed her people to years and years of aggression, namely the Punic Wars that they would fight with Rome many centuries later.
Ultimately, Dido kills herself on her own funeral pyre using Aeneas’s own sword, showing the power of a mind that is acting under the influence of furor. Later, we see her in the Fields of Mourning in the underworld of Dis, where she is doomed to eternal suffering because of her lapse in judgment. But again, much like Turnus, Dido was not completely without piety. At one point, she was a good enough leader to convince swaths of people to follow her to a strange land to found their own city—calling to mind the mission pious Aeneas has set out to accomplish. In the end, it was her inability to stay pious, to stay committed to her late husband or to keep the interests of her people at hand, that led to her desperate situation.
Even Camilla, a warrior maiden and a general of Turnus’s army, lets impiousness enter her life, leading to her quick death in Book XI. While on the battlefield, Camilla is a force to be reckoned with. Then she notices a man wearing particularly fancy armor and forgets herself. Remember, an aspect of piety is that one puts the gods, country, and family before oneself, and Camilla abandons her companions in order to track this man and win a trophy to show off her skill and glory. So “Camilla, keen to fix some Trojan arms on a temple wall or sport some golden plunder out on the hunt…she stalked him wildly, reckless through the ranks, afire with a woman’s lust for loot and plunder,” lost track of what was going on around her, and inadvertently allowed Arruns to throw his spear, blessed by Apollo, which impales and kills her, (Virgil 11.914-918).
This is by far one of the quickest examples of inattentiveness to staying virtuous getting the better of one of Virgil’s characters. Not too much earlier in the same battle, Turnus puts Camilla in a position of power while he goes to set a strategic ambush; when she forgets about her fellow Volscians and the Latins that she is fighting alongside, she leaves herself vulnerable to attack.
Not everyone in the epic, however, succumbs to impious fury. Aeneas remains relatively unscathed by the tragic circumstances that fall on those who let fury take over their minds. Aeneas’s epithet of “pious” is quite the clue: he is considered he quintessential image of piety in a ruler. As mentioned earlier, Virgil may be writing this epic as a form of political propaganda in which he draws parallels between pious Aeneas and the emperor Augustus. According to Sabine Grebe, “Vergil celebrates and, more importantly, legitimizes Augustus’s power,” (Grebe 35). Both the epic hero and the actual ruler fought in wars to legitimize their claims to the land they ruled, Aeneas against the Latins and Augustus against Caesar and Mark Antony. Both men were trusted as leaders “who can create order out of disorder, with divine support,” (Grebe 39).
Virgil takes this connection a step further, even including references to Augustus’s “divi genus,” or his divine connection to Julius Caesar as his legitimate heir within Anchises’s prophecy in book VI, (Grebe 58). If Augustus is truly of divine lineage, connected to Venus through Julius Caesar and Aeneas himself, as he is purported to be in the text of the epic, this fact would entirely legitimize his claim to rule the Roman empire. If Augustus is a mirror of the fictional Aeneas, he must also share in Aeneas’s famous piety as well, right? That’s the idea behind Virgil’s poetry.
Aeneas runs into many obstacles during this epic poem, including his evacuation of Troy, the journey to Italy, and the deaths of his father and of Pallas. Even though these events anger Aeneas, he is still able to control himself and does not give in to his rage, nor does he forget his piety, his duties, or his purpose. He even offers a twelve-day-long truce to the Latins so that they may properly bury their dead after learning the news of Pallas’s death, a respectful gesture that impresses even his enemy’s emissaries. This fact is important, especially with regard to the Roman Epire. If a ruler of a powerful people is to conquer a nation and add it to their empire, as the Romans were doing as this time, their leader needs to possess the qualities that would allow their conquered enemies to respect a new ruler.
Aeneas’s only major run-in with true fury is when Turnus is injured during their one-on-one battle. Aeneas spots Turnus wearing Pallas’s belt as a trophy, and “Aeneas, soon as his eyes drank in that plunder—keepsake of his own savage grief—flaring up in fury, terrible in his rage,” kills Turnus on behalf of his late friend, “blazing with wrath,” (Virgil 12.1102-1109). This wave of fury caught Aeneas as he was feeling a moment of mercy, and the scene begs the question of how the epic could have ended differently (and if Turnus could have remained alive). However the narrative might have run, Aeneas seems justified in his actions, and is able to keep his untarnished reputation. After all, his motives for fighting were to establish a new land for his people and to keep his pious promises.
It is apparent that the idea of piety was extremely important to the Romans, and that for them the absence or lapse of piety leads to “impius furor,” a state of mind in which individuals find themselves making irrational decisions and meeting untimely demises. Dido, Turnus, and Camilla are all examples of people in positions of power who let their own motivations — whether love, power, or glory — get in the way of their ability to effectively lead. Only a true, respectable leader can set aside furor and let “pietas” govern his or her actions — a leader like Aeneas or Augustus.
Boyle, Anthony James. The Chaonian Dove: Studies in the Eclogues, Georgics, and Aeneid of Virgil. Leiden: Brill, 1986. Print.
Covi, Madeline C.. “Dido in Vergil’s Aeneid”. The Classical Journal 60.2 (1964): 57–60. Web.
Grebe, Sabine. “Augustus’ Divine Authority and Vergil’s “Aeneid””. Vergilius (1959-) 50 (2004): 35–62. Web.
Virgil. The Aeneid: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition). Trans. Robert Fagles. N.p.: Penguin, 2006. Electronic.