Discuss Virgil’s representation of the gods in the Aeneid with reference to the plot of the epic.

Williams writes in his chapter on religion on the gods that “The Aeneid is essentially a religious poem.”[1] The gods of intrusion and interest in human actions in the Aeneid are irreplaceable as central to the plot in Virgil’s epic as Homer’s similar epics and the gods in books I and IV are crucial for the forward movement of the plot, for example Jupiter sending Mercury in book IV to remind Aeneas of his ultimate goal, the shores of Italy. In addition the different gods and goddesses perform different roles and take different sides concerning the fate of Aeneas, highlighting both the squabbling and the interest that the gods take in human affairs. Books I and IV also explore the theme of fate and to what extent the gods are restricted and limited by the fates “You can be sure that the destiny of your descendants remains unchanged”[2]. The gods affect the plot of the epic through the attempts to slow Aeneas’ journey from the ruins of Troy to Italy, through the divine intervention in Book IV of making Dido and Aeneas fall in love, marry, then whisk Aeneas away to continue his journey.[3] Juno and her anger plays a major role in the Aeneid and takes charge of the subplot; “attempting to thwart that destiny” that dictates Aeneas will reach Italy. Virgil’s representation of Juno as the cosmic struggle for the gods against the constraints of fate and also for humans against the gods’ powers to decide human actions.

Considering how relevant and important religion and the fates were to the contemporary Augustan Roman audience in the 1st century BC, it is no wonder that the opening of book I is primarily concerned with the power struggle between the gods and the fates and how it relates to the overarching plot of the epic. Such a struggle is explored through Juno’s anger at the foreseen destruction of Carthage. Virgil tells us that Carthage is a city that Juno loved above all others “more even than Samos”[4] and her anger comes from the realisation that a new race, born from the fleeing Trojans, will rise up and destroy Carthage.[5] Constrained by fate Juno is resigned to anger after realizing she can only delay of Aeneas’ arrival in Italy, a suggestion of Virgil’s that the gods too are bound and restricted by the fates. In addition to the binding and unchangeable nature of the fates and destiny Jupiter speaks with Venus, Aeneas’ mother after Juno send storms to disrupt Aeneas’ travel from Sicily. Venus comes to Jupiter angry saying “we are betrayed and kept far away from the shores of Italy”[6]. Venus’ choice to name herself among the sailors by saying “we” is significant when looking at the representation of the gods in relation to mortals and the relationship that Venus has with Aeneas, being her mother.[7] Wordsworth writes that Venus “Thus symbolises his [Aeneas] own more enlightened self”[8], reflecting on Venus’ representation as the protector and advisor of Aeneas.

One exclusive way in which Juno is represented in the Aeneid is as the explanation for “human experience which seems so inexplicable in a world governed by divine providence”[9]. Juno sends two storms in books I and IV, both with her own selfish interests at heart. In book I a storm is sent to disrupt Aeneas’ journey from Sicily to Italy and he is blown to the African coast and Carthage, in book IV Juno sends a storm when Dido and Aeneas are out hunting, forcing them to take shelter in a cave.[10] Juno’s divine interventions are symbolic of the human fear of that which is unknown and unexplained. They are also symbolic of Juno’s capricious and selfish nature where she goes to great lengths to get her way but is ultimately futile. So while fate decrees the limits of divine providence, the gods are able still to manipulate mortals to their own ends, hence why Juno is the explanation for inexplicable human experiences.

Juno’s hatred for Aeneas is not solely on his own shoulders but on the whole Trojan race and Williams describes Juno as “the main cause of mortal suffering throughout the poem”[11] and pursues and torments Aeneas like Poseidon torments Odysseus; her hostility is clear from the prologue in book I “fierce and unforgetting anger… cause of her anger… so much anger in the hearts of the heavenly gods”[12]. In book I Virgil tells us of Juno’s “loathing for the whole stock of Dardanus” (I.28). Troy was founded by Dardanus, the son of Juno’s husband Jupiter and Electra hence Juno’s loathing of him. Throughout the whole of the Aeneid Juno protects those whom Aeneas is fighting. Already mentioned are the instances in the early books but even in book X when it is certain that Aeneas will kill Turnus and win victory over the Rutuli, Jupiter grants Juno one last attempt to save Turnus and scares him from battle with the real Aeneas by conjuring up a phantom Aeneas.[13] In this way Juno is anthropomorphised, her emotions get the better of her and she ignores the will of the fates to try and prolong Turnus’ death. Anthropomorphism is seen in all of the gods in one way or another and seeks to mirror the struggle of the mortals on earth with the triviality of the gods. Williams writes that “In the first place the presence of the Olympians serves to elevate and dignify the human scene”[14] and add an extra dimension to the plot. This is achieved through undercutting the trivial nature of their anthropomorphic squabblings in heaven because the very fact that the almighty Olympian gods would bother to waste their time on the concerns of mortals is significant. Therefore the gods, through Jupiter’s prophecy about the future of Rome and Juno’s concern for Carthage alongside Venus’ protection of Aeneas is representative and proleptic of the future when Rome and Carthage will clash like Juno and Venus.

In book IV Aeneas and Dido live as lovers for a while until Aeneas is told by Mercury that he has delayed for too long and must continue onwards on his journey (IV.220-280). Dido commits suicide after failing to persuade Aeneas to remain as Aeneas’ ships sail away. Book IV is full of divine interventions with both personal and political reasons such as Juno trying to get Aeneas to stay in Carthage, arguments between the gods about human affairs, for example Juno and Venus who are “perpetual opposition”[15] both agree to get Aeneas and Dido to fall in love but for very different reasons, Venus so that Aeneas would be welcomed by the Carthaginians and not spurned and harmed[16], Juno with the hope that Aeneas and Dido will marry and never continue the journey to Italy. Dido by book IV had already been enflamed with lust for Aeneas through Venus becoming Cupid and making Dido fall in love with Aeneas[17]. Interestingly Juno and Venus are the gods of marriage and love respectively so it makes sense that Juno tries to force a marriage and Venus only to enflame love in Aeneas and Virgil, furthering William’s idea of the gods being explanations for inexplicable human experiences. Venus, the mother of Aeneas and the Roman people is portrayed throughout the Aeneid as alma venus, Venus the mother-goddess for good reason, watching over and caring for Aeneas in much the same way as Athene did for Odysseus on his similar wanderings after the sack of Troy.[18] As such Virgil deliberately sets Juno and Venus up against eachother, in this episode especially in order to highlight how quarrels occur both amongst mortals and gods

Aeneas suffers much bad fortune throughout the Aeneid, fleeing the Trojan war, being tossed around in the ocean, the suicide of Dido and the death of Pallas (X.490) to name a few. In some cases it is only the intervention of the gods that preserve Aeneas’ life. In this regard the gods, at least the ones who aid Aeneas in some way, can be represented as interested in human affairs but not compassionate, shown by Venus taking on a disguise as a Spartan girl and Aeneas’ angry reaction “You too are cruel” (I.408). Moreover Virgil invites us to suggest that in order for mortals to get far in life, they need the protection and help of a god. This is echoed in Seneca’s Letter XLI to Lucilius when Seneca asks “is any one capable of rising above fortune unless he has help from God?”[19] This question ties into the representation of Venus as alma venus, mother and guardian for Aeneas. In addition Seneca’s question ties back into the question of the power of fate, as the gods are bound by fate’s decision, humans are bound by the gods’ decisions.[20]

In summation Virgil’s representation of the gods is similar to Homer’s pantheonic representation but each god/goddess plays a distinct role in the plot of Aeneas’ journey. Juno and Venus take centre stage in the interest of Aeneas, sparring back and forth, Venus protecting and Juno harassing. Jupiter throughout the play is very composed and considered, playing the role of interpreting the fates when fit, for example telling Venus that the fates decree the inception and rise of Rome, and telling Juno that there will be no way to prevent Turnus’ death. As father to all the gods and mirroring Zeus, Jupiter’s role in the Aeneid is secondary to Venus and Juno and resists temptation to take sides. The anthropomorphism of the gods is undercut by their trivial squabbling over infinitesimally insignificant human matters. Jasper Griffin succinctly summarises this when he says “The gods care for Aeneas… but his happiness does not seem to concern them”[21].






Campbell, Robin “Letters from a Stoic” (Penguin Classics, 2014)

Coleman, Robert “The Gods in the Aeneid” (Greece & Rome, Vol. 29, No. 2  pp. 143-168, Cambridge University Press, 1982) http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/642340.pdf?seq=1 accessed 14/04/16

Gransden. K.W, “Virgil, The Aeneid” (Cambridge University Press, 1990)

Griffin, Jasper “Virgil” (Oxford University Press, 1986)

Haardhoff, T.J “Virgil the universal” (Basil Blackwell & Mott, 1949)

Seneca, “Letters from a Stoic, Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium” (trans. Robin Campbell) (Penguin Classics, 2014)

Virgil, “The Aeneid” (trans David West) (Penguin Classics 2003)

Williams R.D, “The Aeneid” (Unwin Hyman Ltd, 1987)

Williams R.D, “The Aeneid of Virgil” (Bristol Classical Press, 1985)

Woodworth D.C “The Function of the Gods in Vergil’s “Aeneid”” (The Classical Journal, Vol. 26, No. 2 pp. 112-126, 1930) http://www.jstor.org/stable/3290514 accessed 13/04/2016



[1] Williams. 128 (1987)

[2] Virgil. I.278

[3] Woodworth. 113

[4] Virgil, I.13-34

[5] Ibid. 1.24

[6] Ibid. 1.250

[7] Wordsworth. 121

[8] Ibid. 124

[9] Williams. 11 (1985)

[10] Virgil. 1.81ff & 4.160ff

[11] Williams. 131

[12] Virgil 1.4-12

[13] Virgil. X.637

[14] Williams 129 (1987)

[15] Williams. 132

[16] Virgil. I.296

[17] Ibid. 1.659

[18] Coleman. 153

[19] Campbell. 80

[20] Virgil. VI.375

[21] Griffin. 85


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