The Omnipresence of the Gods

Whether by means of the Sortes Virgilianae or simply by choice, every Latinist has his favorite line from the Aeneid. My favorite line has always been from Book IX, when Nisus asks Euryalus the following question:

Dine hunc ardorem mentibus addunt,
Euryale, an sua cuique deus fit dira cupido?

Do the gods not give this fire to our hearts, O Euryalus,
or does each man’s mad passion become to him a god?

This question is one of the seminal questions of the Aeneid and one of the great questions of all philosophy: what is it that ultimately motivates man? Is the source of what moves man divine, or is it simply himself, his own psychology? While Virgil never explicitly answers this question, he sets a number of equivalent situations where he entertains this question, and how the reader understands this question is pivotal to the understanding the final scene in Book XII, in which Aeneas slays Turnus.

Nisus’ dira cupido (“mad passion”, “dread desire”) refers to his wish to abandon his guard post and venture into the sleeping ranks of Rutulian troops. Nisus knows perfectly well that this wild risk is a nearly suicidal endeavor, but the payoff is glory—and that is the stuff of heroes. To win glory, or at the very least, to bite the dust in the flames of battle is the goal of any Classical warrior worth his mettle. To die anonymously at sea (as Aeneas almost does in Book I), or with a whimper after days of siege wear down the battlements, is abhorrent.

The Nisus1 and Euryalus episode is a retelling of a scene from Book X of the Iliad, in which Odysseus and Diomedes spy on the Trojan camps at night. Capitalizing on the vulnerable sleeping Trojans, the pair behead their victims, sending a mess of Trojans from Hypnos to Thanatos. Both Homer and Virgil recognize this scene as distinctly heroic, but to Virgil, it is Greek heroism, an example of timê. Roman heroism is something which Virgil spends the entirety of the Aeneid defining, but might be truncated to the idea of pietas: a combination of personal responsibility to the gods, family, and homeland. In the context of a Greek war, the heroism of Diomedes and Odysseus is therefore highly effective. In the context of a Roman war, however, the Greek heroism embodied by Nisus and Euryalus ultimately leads to nothing. While the Trojan pair successfully murder a slew of sleeping Rutulians, they fail to achieve the primary objective of informing Aeneas that their camp has been surrounded, and also fail to obey orders and keep guard.

Nisus’ question touches on the idea of gods as both anthropomorphic figures physically living within the heavens and affecting the course of humanity, while simultaneously being projected representations of aspects of the human psyche and other phenomena. Thus, Hypnos is both the god who controls sleep, as well as sleep itself; Thanatos is both the god of death, and death itself; Venus is both the goddess of love, and love itself; Juno is the goddess of wrath (among other things), and wrath itself. Nisus’ question is similar to the dilemma of the chicken or the egg: did the gods give him the impulse, or did his impulse give him the god?

Virgil explores the mystery of the source of human impulses further at the end of Book I, where Eros disguised as Ascanius breathes poisonous love into Dido’s heart. On one level, this scene is entirely the result of divine will. Venus tells Eros to poison Dido so that she falls in love with Aeneas, and by doing so Venus guarantees Aeneas’ safety in this foreign land ruled by Juno. On another level, this scene can be described entirely within the context of human emotion. Dido certainly cannot deny being a tidbit smitten with Aeneas long before the arrival of Cupid. The first time she lays eyes on him, she is described as obstipuit aspectu2 (“standing agape at the sight”, “marveling at the sight”) and immediately addresses him as nate dea3 (“goddess born”). Her words give away her attraction to Aeneas long before Eros crawls into her lap. When Ascanius/Eros eventually does sit in her lap, can we blame Dido for thinking of her own empty womb, her own dead husband, her sworn widowhood, (all of which she will lament later in the book)—is not this hero, who washed up on her shores, the perfect suitor for her? Is it not only natural that she fall in love with Aeneas, a proper king for her new land, leader of seasoned warriors to help defend against Iarbus and other surrounding enemies?

The next time we see Dido is in Book IV, where “burning” nearly becomes her epithet as her passion is associated with fire and madness. She is compared directly to the raging Bacchante (the wild hedonist worshipers of Bacchus), howling in their orgies as she herself bacchatur (“rages”)4 through the entire city of Carthage. The flame of love “eats at her marrow”5, driving her more and more insane. She is described repeatedly as infelix6, “unlucky”, a word which implies that Dido is a victim of bad luck, that she could not have controlled this situation. Her passion, as with Nisus dira cupido, has become her god. Fittingly, she ends her life by making literal the metaphorical wound referred to in the second line of Book IV.7

Another example is drowsy Palinurus at the end of Book V, whom Hypnos persuades to fall asleep at the tiller of Aeneas’ ship. Palinurus initially rebukes Hypnos’ argument, so the god takes drastic measures, enchanting him to sleep and pushing him off the stern of the ship (but not before the determined Palinurus rips off a piece of the tiller). Here, it seems that the situation is more a matter of direct divine intervention, yet the description of this scene (as with Dido) is allegorically equivalent to the human phenomenon of drowsiness. It is not for nothing that we “fight” sleep, “struggle” to stay awake, but ultimately, capitulate, “falling” asleep or, in Palinurus’ case, off the taffrail.

Examples of this conundrum are numerous. For example, Allecto drives the firebrand of wrath into Turnus’ heart, and releases the viperish snake of hatred on Amata.8 Yet it is important to note that every action taken by any character in the Aeneid can be read both as effected by the gods, or as a psychological phenomenon. Thus, even in scenes where the name “Juno” might not ever be mentioned, we can still see the presence of Juno via actions, thoughts, or impulsions that are Juno-esque. Seas cannot storm without the permission of Neptune, so if we see a storming sea, we must assume Neptune is present. Though the gods may be absent in name, they are omnipresent in numen.

Understanding the above paradox is crucial to understanding the final scenes of the Aeneid. When Juno is told to stay out of the fight and quit interfering with the war between Trojans and Rutulians, she complies, and we don’t see her name for the remainder of the epic. Bodily, she is absent; yet the emotions she represents are terribly present. Thus, when Aeneas stands over the suppliant Turnus, sword hanging above the vanquished man’s head, he has to decide whether to kill or spare Turnus. Turnus begs him, ulterius ne tende9 odiis (“stretch no further with hatred”), and asks him to consider the grief his father Daunus would feel, and notes that Anchises would have had pity in his situation (no doubt this is true—the last time Aeneas talked to Anchises in Book VI, the shade of Anchises reminded Aeneas that the powers of Rome will be to battle down the haughty, and spare the suppliant).10 This is the moment of stillness, the brief pause of consideration where, in a way, the whole future of Rome hangs in the sway of this one, crucial decision. Whether Aeneas kills Turnus or spares Turnus will set the example for all future generations of Romans.

And then Juno swoops in. Seeing the baldric of Pallas, Aeneas is furiis accensus et ira terribilis (“enflamed by rage and terrible anger”)11—Aeneas is at last overcome by Juno; whether or not he realizes it, his apotheosis into the annals of Roman history is adorned with the attributes of Juno, Queen of vengeance. Juno, while ceding the fight to Jupiter, is more present here than ever before, becoming the conquering emotion of Aeneas himself.

Furthermore, Nisus’ great question is just as present as ever, and we as readers are supposed to ask this same question in all scenes of the Aeneid, and perhaps too within our personal lives. Perhaps Virgil found himself asking the same question of Nisus—do the Muses inspire the poetry of his pen, or does his poetry create the very Muses that inspire himnisus

Nisus and Euryalus (1827) by Jean-Baptiste Roman (Louvre Museum)

1 nisus, us m. a pressing or resting upon or against a) a striving, exertion; b) step, flight, push, ascent; c) a giving birth; Virgil is no stranger to etymological puns.

2 Book I: 613.

3 Book I: 615.

4 “Saevit inops animi totamque incense per urbem
bacchatur, qualis commotis excit sacris
Thyias ubi audito stimulant trieteria Baccho
Orgia noctuernusque vocat clamore Cithaeron”,
Book IV:300-303.

5 “Est mollis flamma medulla”, Book IV: 66.

6 “Uritur infelix Dido totaque vagatur / urbe furens”, Book IV: 68-69.

7 “vulnus alit venis et caeco carpitur igni”. Book IV: 2.

8 One might further compare the scenes between the poisoning of Amata by wrath/Allecto and the poisoning of Dido with love/Eros. Analysis of these scenes reveals that, despite these two emotions seeming to be opposites, the effects they have on Dido and Amata are remarkably similar: both women burn with the emotion, both rage, both go insane, and both can only be cured of it by suicide. If we read the competition between Venus and Juno as a competition between Love and Vengeance, there are some very interesting implications for the end of the Book XII, when Aeneas stands over Turnus and must decide between Love (thus, sparing Turnus) and Vengeance (slaying him).

9 We might recall the first book of the Aeneid, line 205 tendimus in Latium (“we stretch into Latium”), where this word tendimus appears for the first time. Aeneas heroic speech is the mark of his leadership in Book I, and here Turnus reminds us of that speech by the use of the imperative form tende. We are reminded that the question of the epic has never been whether or not Aeneas will make it to Italy and found Rome, but rather how he will go about doing it.

10 tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
(hae tibi erunt artes), pacisque imponere morem,
parcere subjectis et debellare superbos.
(Book VI, 851-3)

11 XII, 946-47.

7 replies »

  1. As a fan and “serial” translator of Vergil, I think that is one of the more insightful commentaries I have read of him and the wondrous universe he seems to live in. You have found the heartbeat of one of the most enigmatic and entrancing writers of western literature. Thanks.


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