Note: This is an essay I wrote for the Classics R44 Roots of Western Civilization course at UC Berkeley in Fall 2019. I want to thank my section instructor Kristina Chew and Prof. Giovanni R. F. Ferrari for their discussions and feedback throughout this process.
Prompt: How does love (of someone or something, of parents, of a place, of a community — pietas) appear as a potent and potentially dangerous emotion and force in Virgil’s Aeneid, Lucretius’ The Way Things Are, the New Testament (the Gospels of Mark and John, the letters to the Corinthians and to the Thessalonians), Plato’s Republic? (Choose 1-3 texts to write about.)
Text Chosen: Virgil’s Aeneid and Lucretius’ The Way Things Are
Eros, or Amor and Cupido in Latin, is the personification of love in the Greek theological system. Oftentimes, Eros appears as a playful boy in Hellenistic poetry and art, expressing its lack of responsibility. Does love come with responsibility? Plato argues to split the figure into two parts, one “reasonable” and one “causing offence.” In the Roman value system, pietas — a form of dutiful and responsible love — is embraced as a virtue, dedicated to significant others, parents, place, community, and gods. Two Roman works, Virgil’s Aeneid and Lucretius’ The Way Things Are, examine and distinguish between dutiful love (such as pietas) and passionate emotional love. Virgil’s Aeneid is a Latin epic poem about the journey of Aeneas, who highly embodies the idea of pietas, and hence is called pius Aeneas. His journey starts from fleeing from Troy after the Trojan war and eventually reaching Italy, becoming the foundation of the Roman settlement, summarized in the first eight lines of the poem. “Wars and a man I sing — an exile driven on by Fate, / he was the first to flee the coast of Troy, / destined to reach Lavinian shores and Italian soil, / yet many blows he took on land and see from gods above / — thanks to the cruel Juno’s relentless rage — and many losses / he bore in battle too, before he could found a city, / bring his gods to Latium, source of the Latin race, / the Alban lords and the high walls of Rome” (Aeneid I. 1-8). According to Virgil, the primitive and emotional form of love is condemned as wicked and disastrous, oftentimes leading to wars and sufferings, yet duty-bound love is praised as a form of virtue and strength. This interestingly can be examined through an Epicurean lens described in Lucretius’ The Way Things Are; the natural and fitting love leads to serenity and whereas passionate love, furor amoris, leads to torture and false hope.
Epicureanism originates as a school of thought in Greek philosophy, upholding tranquility and serenity over all. The ultimate goal is to be free from anxiety and fear, reaching a state of ataraxia. Lucretius’ The Way Things Are is a didactic poem examining the mechanisms of the natural and human world through an Epicurean lens, “by systematic contemplation” (The Way Things Are, p. 24), including the atomism principle, which states that the physical world is composed of fundamentally indivisible components and space. He then explores the topic of mind and soul related to death, sensations and thoughts, and the development of civilization. Love is crucial as it falls under sensations and thoughts, and the product of love ultimately contributes to the continuation of civilization.
Emotional and irrational love is portrayed as highly excessive and tragic. In The Way Things Are, Lucretius, opens the book with an invocation of Venus, the Roman goddess of love and sex, to assist him with his book. “Creatress, mother of the Roman line, / Dear Venus, joy of earth and joy of heaven” (The Way Things Are Bk. I p. 1); love seems to be wonderful, as it creates the Mother Earth and Nature, and the Roman civilization (as Venus is the mother of Aeneas, whose line founded Rome according to the Aeneid). However, starting in Book IV, Lucretius emphasizes this notion of Furious love, furor amoris, mostly sparked by men’s sexual desire. As he reveals, this romantic pursuit is just an illusion; men fantasize about their partners and set ideal expectations. “Desire is blind, desire is ignorant, / And men can never stop this foolishness, But keep on praising an attractive charm / which simply isn’t there” (The Way Things Are Bk. IV p. 153). Yet once drained of this false hope, it is impossible for men to escape, “Venus plays tricks on lovers with her game, / Of images which never satisfy” (The Way Things Are Bk. IV p. 151), left them unsatisfied and anxious about their actions. They overread and overthink about small details of their partners, “For this they work themselves to death, worn out, / Exhausted, spent” (The Way Things Are Bk. IV p. 152). This notion would not fade away but rather increase over time as men hold on to hope. “There’s hope, always, that the fire may die / Extinguished by the body which aroused / Its ardor in the first place. What could be / More contrary to nature? Nothing else Inflames us, once we have it, with desire / Of more and more and more” (The Way Things Are Bk. IV p. 150 - 1). This love beyond natural expectations and driven by artificial desires reflects the Epicurean thinking of the horrific consequences of exceeding nature and breaking serenity. Similarly, this disastrous effect of the furious love is also reflected in Virgil’s Aeneid. In Book IV, queen Dido, who arranged by Venus and sparked by Cupid, falls in love with Aeneas. “But the queen — too long she has suffered the pain of love, / hour by hour nursing the wound with her lifeblood” (Aeneid IV. 1-2). Dido has become impulsive, wildly, and fatally in love. “Dido burns with love — the tragic queen” (Aeneid IV. 7) However, this romance seem to be full of suffering, with burning love and eventually burning herself out, destined to be doomed and “tragic”. Especially, once Aeneas firmly decides to leave for search of Italy, Dido cries, “Love, your tyrant! / To what extremes won’t you compel our hearts?” (Aeneid IV. 518-519), showing Lucretius’ idea of love’s impossible expectations and hence the grief it will leave with the harsh reality. On the other hand, Aeneas also shows impulsive and passionate love. In Book II, as Aeneas loses all his hope after the Greeks have overtaken Troy, the rage for revenge drives him to leave home to die with glory, despite his wife Creusa’s begging, “Arms, my comrades, / bring me arms! The last light calls the defeated. / Send me back to the Greeks, let me go back / to fight new battles. Not all of us here / will die today without revenge” (Aeneid II. 829-33). This sudden rage proved to be almost a fatal mistake and destined doom, if not the gods have showed him and Anchises the signs. In Book XII, during the final duel between him and Turnus, Aeneas decides to spare Turnus, moved by Turnus’ commitment for his father. However, Aeneas, “soon as he eyes drank in that plunder — keepsake / of his own savage grief — flaring up in fury, terrible in his rage” (Aeneid XII.1103-4), decides to end Turnus’ life as he sees Turnus wearing Pallas’ belt as a war trophy. This sudden rage prompts him to overturn his decision and shows for some one even as pius as Aeneas, after all his journey, rage and fury still prompts passionate love and impulsivity.
On the contrary, both authors define a form of love with duty and show a loss of this dutiful love leads to tragic consequences. For Lucretius and his scientific lens, the essential functionality of love is to produce offspring, because of the need in Roman society to maintain family name, power, and wealth through heirs among the upper class, as well as the state’s need for armies and rulers. This is the nature that Lucretius defines in a Roman context, and it can be reflected in the Aeneid. “Woman’s a thing / that’s always changing, shifting like the wind.” (Aeneid IV. 710-11), claimed by Mercury in his warning to Aeneas in Book IV. Indeed, from Creusa, Dido, to Lavinia, among Aenea’s always-changing woman, only Dido, the one without producing offspring and whose relationship with Aeneas sparked by only passionate love, leads her to a tragic ending.
Instead of denying love completely as described earlier, Lucretius suggests an alternative way. “Avoiding passionate love, you need not miss / All the rewards of Venus; you might gain / Easing and comfort without penalty. / Surely delight comes in purer form” (The Way Things Are Bk. IV p. 150). In fact, he suggests “consuetudo”, which is the Epicurean term for friendship, that marriage should be in the context of friendship and familiarity of each other’s custom, as “love depends / On habit quite as much as the wild ways / of passion” (The Way Things Are Bk. IV p. 157). This Epicurean ideal of matching serves not only “two-way pleasure” (The Way Things Are Bk. IV p. 155), but mostly focused again on the functionality of love, to avoid sterility, and to successfully produce offspring, “Some men more efficacious with some women, / Some women more surely pregnant by some men” (The Way Things Are Bk. IV p. 156). Besides romantic love, Lucretius also touches on the idea of family love. In Book 5, where he explains the progress of civilization, he explains the formation of justice, “Their parents’ haughty spirit by their wheedling, And even neighbors started forming pacts / Of nonaggression: Do not hurt me, please, / And I’ll not hurt you, were the terms they stammered.” (The Way Things Are Bk. V p. 188), progress and justice is thus created to keep the family alive for early civilization, through men’s obligation and family love for their wives and children and wish to continue the family.
In the Aeneid, the dutiful love is emphasized as “pietas”. Virgil examines the power of pietas and how the presence or lack of it leads to success or disaster. Recall that in Book II, Aeneas, during the fall of Troy, loses all hope and is ready to fight for glory to a destined death. At that very moment, the signs sent by the gods stops him from doing so, “a tongue of fire, / watch, flares up from the crown of Iulus’ head, / a subtle flame licking his downy hair, feeding / around the boy’s brow, / and though it never harmed him” (Aeneid II. 850-4). Interpreted by Anchises, Aeneas now is given a new duty, as “Troy rests in your power” (Aeneid II. 876) and he needs to safeguard his house and especially his son Iulus, as well as preserving the Trojan race. Thus, this begins the journey of Aeneas, as revealed by Jove to Venus, to save the Trojans and find the kingdom in Italy that belongs to his son Ascanius, “You will see your promised city, see Lavinium’s walls / and bear your great-hearted Aeneas up to the stars on high” (Aeneid I. 309-10). Dido, on the hand, once also possesses pietas. First, she shows pietas in welcoming the Trojans instead of destroying them, as following the instructions of god that Jupiter that sends down. When inflated with love for Aeneas by Venus, she shows hesitation and held on to pietas for her dead husband Sychaeus. “He’s carried my love away, the man who wed me first — / may he hold it tight, safeguard it in his grave.” (Aeneid IV. 35-36) However, encouraged by her sister Anna, she destroys this pietas and decides to pursue Aeneas. Eventually, as Virgil described, the heart-broken love-sick Dido, “She rages in helpless frenzy, blazing through / the entire city, raving like some Maenad / driven wild when the women shake the sacred emblems” (Aeneid IV. 373-5), loses her pietas and ends up with madness. This degeneration contrasts her greatly with her image of great capability and majesty as a queen in Book I.
Meanwhile, Aeneas, although in love with Dido, mostly never breaks his pietas. He is described mostly as Pius Aeneas throughout Aeneid. He does forget his pietas for some period; yet once he realizes it, he is able to correct it. Drown in love with Dido, he is warned by Mercury, “wasting time in Libya — what hope misleads you so?” (Aeneid IV. 338-9). Aeneas soon reminds himself of his pietas. Before he leaves Dido to part for Italy, he justifies his actions to her as he must fulfill his pietas, the pietas to his father’s wish and instruction during the fall of Troy. “My father, Anchises, whenever the darkness shrouds/ the earth in its dank shadows, whenever the stars / go flaming up the sky, my father’s anxious ghost / warns me in dreams and fills my heart with fear” (Aeneid IV. 438 - 441). He upholds his pietas to the future of his son Iulus and the Trojan race, “My son Ascanius … I feel the wrong I do / to one so dear, robbing him of his kingdom, / lands in the West, his fields decreed by Fate” (Aeneid IV. 442-444). Lastly, he points out that this pietas is a divine command, that he must not have objections, “dispatched by Jove himself / has brought me firm commands through the racing winds” (Aeneid IV. 446-447). He especially emphasizes, in his speech to Dido, his decision is a painful one, as his affection is described that “Dido who means the world to him” (Aeneid IV. 360). He does this “All against my will” (Aeneid IV. 452), proceed with pietas unwillingly. Pietas thus became a fate and not love necessarily, but a forced love. However, he overcomes his personal attachment to Dido, and by deciding to follow his pietas, he has achieved holiness and virtue, and indeed at this moment, pius is used to describe Aeneas in the whole of Book IV. In fact, this idea of pietas as power is further continued, especially in the war with Turnus. His duty for revenging the death of Pallas as promised to his Pallas’ father successfully defeats Turnus. It is Aeneas’ pietas and destiny that remain intact, setting aside all grieves, and that is what makes it possible for him to reach his destination, defeat of the Latins, and founding of the place that will become Rome.
Comparing Aeneas and Dido, Virgil reveals that keeping and living up to pietas can bring strength and power, where as broken pietas inflates emotion and tragics. Note that Aeneas does not break his pietas with Dido as lovers. Although Dido claims that they are married, “she calls it a marriage, / using the word to cloak her sense of guilt” (Aeneid IV. 417-8), their affair in the cave is never properly formally recognized and hence no pietas is required, “Nor did I once extend a bridegroom’s torch / or enter into a marriage pact with you.” (Aeneid IV. 422-423) Affairs with Dido strengthens and develops Aeneas with his pietas, and Dido breaks all her pietas and loses her dignity. Contrasting Dido’s madness with Aeneas’ pietas, Dido’s actions are excessive and overdramatic, sometimes even violent. On the other hand, Aeneas seems rather cold. Virgil compares him to “a sturdy oak” (Aeneid IV. 555), descbring his reaction when Dido sends Anna to convince him to stay until better weather, as “he takes the full force / of love and suffering deep in his great heart. / His will stands unmoved. The falling tears are futile.” (Aeneid IV. 563-5). It should be mentioned that Romans prized moderation and his actions can be seen as calm and determined. Pietas gives man peace, whereas lack of it leads to craziness and destructions. In fact, after making up his mind to pursue his pietas, “Aeneas slept in peace on his ship’s high stern” (Aeneid IV. 692), constrasting with his distress in the chaos back in Book I and II. Pietas has helped him achieve serenity and peace with fate. This reflects the Epicurean idea of serenity and tranquility described by Lucretius, and Dido shows unbalanced nature of excessive and furious love. Both of the dutiful love described by Virgil and Lucretius, although different in their outlooks, achieve the same result to bring peace and tranquility, free from worrisomes.
The irrationality of love results either in a form of injuring or war. In The Way Things Are, sexual conducts are described as painful between partners, as Lucretius states that it is more of an urge of hurt. “The make it hurt, take hold of lips with teeth, / Kiss with insistent fireceness. Such delight / Is never pure, for in its impulse lies, / The appetite for pain, the urge to hurt, / The germinal seeds of madness” (The Way Things Are Bk. IV p. 150). In Virgil’s Aeneid, the idea of love and war exists throughout the book. From the origin of all the story, Trojan war is a result of a war for Helen, as Aeneas describes her “a curse to Troy and her native land” (Aeneid IV. 692) when he last sees Helen in the ruin of Troy. As described in Book XII, The war between the Trojans and the Latiniums, similarly, is caused by envy of Turnus of King Latinus marrying Lavinia to Aeneid, as Fury Allecto describes to Turnus “the King denies you / your bride” (Aeneid VII. 494-5). This “woman-revenging” war is then further sparked by the trivial love of Silvia’s love for her deer, which died of the wound caused by Ascanius’ arrow during a hunt. These series of trivial irrational love and envies leads up to a total war, reflecting the disastrous results of love that are not according to pietas. In fact, Virgil uses Dido to explain the cause of the century-lasting Punic War between Rome and Carthage, as she cursed before her death, “war between all / our peoples, all their children, endless war!” (Aeneid IV. 783-4).
In Roman religion, Venus and Mars, the goddess of love and the god of war, are spouses. This unique combination leads to the idea that with love, always come war as well. The intention of love proves to achieve the opposite effect in Aeneid. Venus originally sets Aeneas and Dido in love as protection for Aeneas from Juno, “So I plan to forestall her with ruses of my own / and besiege the queen with flames, / and no goddess will change her mood — she’s mine, / my ally-in-arms in my great love for Aeneas” (Aeneid I. 803-806). However, in practise, this ends up with immense hatred of Dido towards Aeneas and results in a generation of war between the two races. Similarly, King Latinus offers Lavinia as bride to Aeneas, as the oracle of Faunus instructed him, “Never seek to marry your daughter to a Latin, / put no trust, my son, in a marriage read-ymade. / Strangers will come, and come to be your sons” (Aeneid VII. 106-8). However, his intention to follow the oracle and keep peace between the newly arrived Trojans and Latium failed as a full-scale war breaks out between them.
This contrast of the ideal and quite opposite results in practise reflects Lucretius’ perspective on love and wound. As Lucretius argues, it is the love that wounds the war spirit, that keep the world peaceful. “Since you alone can help with tranquil peace / The human race, and Mars, the governor / Of war’s fierce duty, more than once has come, / Gentled by love’s eternal wound, to you” (The Way Things Are, Bk. I p. 2). Contradictorily, in Book 4 of The Way Things Are, men and women are wounded disastrously by love, unable to come to peace with themselves. This irrelationality reveals that although the ideal of love could keep peace; in reality it never does and instead inflicts war and suffering. Thus, the Epicurean ideal becomes something to strive for, rather than achieving it instantaneously.
Love, as Lucretius described, “One drop of sweetness in the heart, and then / A cold anxiety” (The Way Things Are Bk. IV p.149 - 50). Furious lovers are dangerous, featuring extreme, amplified, and obsessive romantic love, just as what Virgil illustrated about Dido. Escaping from furor amoris, Lucretius offer the readers consuetudo and Virgil offers pietas; one for natural fitting and not excessive love, one for dutiful love. Both gives unmatched strength compared to irrational love. With a marriage that embodies consuetudo, “Gently does it, as the rain / In time wears through the very hardest stone.” (The Way Things Are Bk. IV p. 157). With pietas constantly in mind, Aeneas is able to withstand the fury of Dido and transcend to serenity. Even Juno, the all-mighty queen of the Roman gods, cannot stop him from achieving his goal.
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