Christians often decry the sexual values of the postmodern world. The idea of cohabitation, homosexual activity, and even polyamorous situations are discussed as though they are vices which will weaken a culture. What is not surprising is that simultaneously divorce rates continue to rise and abuse within marriages manifests in unions at every level of society. Do these signs serve as a reminder that our culture has much in common with Ancient Rome? The charge has been leveled, and it has become a bit of a sport to compare national leaders with famous Roman men of the State. But perhaps the most significant parallel between this present age and the Roman classical era is not a comparison of vices, but rather the idea that there were always those present who rejected such practices. In Virgil’s Aeneid, a reader will find just such commentary on the Roman idea of marriage.
It should be noted that Virgil was not the only one during his day to make positive contributions to the Roman concept of marriage. Horace, a contemporary poet most often known for his satirical writings, even went as far as to say, “Happy, happy, happy those, / Bound by fast and equal ties— / Love that no division knows, / Love that never faints or dies.” Even the historian Livy dedicates substantial amounts of his history of Rome to the early marriages that should serve as the proper models for later Romans to follow. While the politicians around them seemed content to turn a blind eye to, or even participate in, all of the ways in which Rome had lost any view of the sanctity of marriage, there were some who had not yet moved on from that foundational institution. Virgil used a few key moments in his epic, The Aeneid, to add his voice to the chorus calling out for a better understanding of Roman marriage.
In his flight from Rome, Aeneas abandons Creusa during the escape (II.959-966). Perhaps this is the first evidence of a horrid husband? But instead, Virgil tells us, that despite the pleas of his people and the low probability of success, Aeneas “turned back alone / Into the city, cinching my bright harness. / Nothing for it but to run the risks / Again, go back again, comb all of Troy, / And put my life in danger as before” (II.975-979). These are not the actions of a man who thinks only of himself, or even of his legacy to future generations. In this moment, Aeneas can think of nothing except his great love for his wife. If any Trojan were going to “enjoy life with the wife whom [they] love . . . because that is [their] portion in life and in [their] toil at which [they] toil under the sun,” it would be Aeneas (Ecc. 9:9, ESV). Aeneas’ love is so great, that the very ghost of Creusa returned to tell him that his mission was in vain, and that he had to move for the sake of their son, if nothing else (II.1000-1046). Virgil could have had a hero as cold and calculating as Homer’s Achilleus. Or, he could have provided Aeneas with a mistress to rescue as well. But instead, Virgil gives him one wife, a pious wife, whom Aeneas loved greatly.
The story of Aeneas and Dido is a bit trickier to navigate. While it would be easy to treat Dido and Aeneas’ love story as though it were no marriage, but rather simply two consenting adults, Virgil says otherwise: “Primal Earth herself and Nuptial Juno / Opened the ritual, torches of lightning blazed, / High Heaven became witness to the marriage, / And nymphs cried out wild hymns from a mountain top” (IV.229-232). Though Aeneas would go on to deny that their relationship is any such thing, his denial will in fact condemn Dido to the flames (IV.467-468; 233-234). This is not merely political posturing or narrative tool; Dido’s actions would have had dire consequences for his kingdom if Aeneas denied being her husband. For every neighboring kingdom knew that they had been acting as though wed, and without the formal vows to seal it, claims of immorality or unfitness could easily have been hurled her way. But Aeneas is denying what Juno had affirmed. If the right thing is to live by the code: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate,” Aeneas falls woefully short of the mark (Mark 10:9, ESV). But perhaps that is Virgil’s point? Aeneas’ choice here is a bad one, and it sets the stage for his third marriage once he lands in Italy.
As Aeneas initially plans to unite the Latins and Trojans through his marriage to Lavinia, snatching her away from her fiance Turnus in the process, Juno intercedes. She sends Allecto to stir up trouble, and out of the mouth of Queen Amata comes the condemnation of treating marriage so lightly: “Mothers of Latium, listen, / Wherever you may be: if your good hearts / Feel any kindness still for poor Amata, / Any concern for justice to a mother, / Shake your headbands loose, take up the revel / Along with me” (VII.552-557). Amata is protecting her child, at Juno’s behest, from marrying a man who is not committed to keeping his vows. It is not until Aeneas goes through much pain and trial that Juno relents and agrees to the union with Lavinia. Virgil highlights the consequences of treating marriage lightly, and cautions against straying from first principles as Aeneas did; once willing to die for his first wife, he brings about the death of his second in the name of his country, and is denied a peaceful establishment as a result. In some ways, Virgil’s view of marriage might even supersede many enlightened folks today.
Virgil. The Aeneid. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.