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One God to Rule Them All: Monotheistic idiosyncrasies in the relationship between fate, gods and men in Virgil's Aeneid

דצמבר 31, 2012

That silent functioning, like God’s, inspires all manner of conjectures. One scurrilously suggests that the Company ceased to exist hundreds of years ago, and that the sacred disorder of our lives is purely hereditary, traditional; another believes that the Company is eternal, and teaches that it shall endure until the last night, when the last god shall annihilate the earth. Yet another declares that the Company is omnipotent, but affects only small things: the cry of a bird, the shades of rust and dust, the half dreams that come at dawn. Another, whispered by masked heresiarchs, says that the Company has never existed, and never will. Another, no less despicable, argues that it makes no difference whether one affirms or denies the reality of the shadowy corporation, because Babylon is nothing but an infinite game of chance.[1]

–Jorge Luis Borges, The Lottery in Babylon

Introduction‏ ‏

In monotheistic religions there is only one supreme deity and its divine plan, or divine will, is regarded by believers as a synonym for destiny or fate. Every success and every failure in the course of life of mortals is attributed to the works of the divine and is believed to be made by its wish. In Jewish tradition this view is evident in the story of David and Goliath:

David said to Saul … 'The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.' … David said to the Philistine 'All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord's, and he will give all of you into our hands.' (‎1 Samuel 17:34-47)‎

However, this view of the divine as being omnipotent and of having omni-influence on each and every aspect of quotidian life leaves little room for mortal's free will. If all of our actions (and by extension, our thoughts and feelings) are planned and plotted in advance, what makes humans any different than marionettes? Furthermore, if humans have no free will and thus no influence over their own actions, why should they be punished for wrongdoings that the supreme being had them commit?[2] It is of no wonder that the subject of free will and the attempt to reconcile the immanent paradox between the divine plan and personal accountability has been the focus of many theological and philosophical monotheistic thinkers throughout history.[3]

While this paradox is most evident in monotheistic cultures, where any attempt to limit the supreme deity's powers by claiming that god's influence over humans is dependent upon their free will choices or to delegate it to an additional divine force such as Fortuna or even simply luck or chance, could be seen as heresy for contradicting the prime principle of monotheistic belief (there is only one – omnipotent and omniscient – deity that controls all aspects of life), in polytheistic cultures the multitude of divine deities and their sometimes conflicting motivations and interventions with human life could provide a solution to the paradox, albeit raising a few others. In this context, Vergil's Aeneid[4] could offer an interesting and original approach to the triangular relationship between man, gods and fate.

The question of mortal's free will and its interworking with destiny and divine will has been the main focus of many critics and researchers of Virgil's work.[5] In this paper I will argue that humans in the Aeneid have a choice, although their choice might not be as free as they would have wish it would be. However, my main interest is the balance of powers between gods and fate or, as I hope to demonstrate, the unilateral and unbalanced influence of fate over gods. This turning of the tables – when contrasted with a monotheistic model of divine 'hierarchy' where the balance of powers is unilateral and unbalanced but in which the supreme being is the creator and sole architect of fate – is what I shall explore in this paper. In short, I will argue that while humans may choose to follow their destiny or not, the gods' range of possibilities is much more limited by fate.

Aeneas and Dido – comply with your destiny and/or suffer the consequence

In order to explore the notion of human free will in the Aeneid I would like to begin by examining prominent human figures in the epos. Comparing Aeneas and Dido seems like a prudent choice for they have a lot in common – in a way, they share a similar, yet distinct, fate: They are both of royal blood, they both have had a fair share of suffering and they are both displaced from their homeland.[6] Crucial to the matter at hand is that both have been given a divine destiny: Dido has taken upon herself a scared oath in front of Jupiter to cherish only the memory of her late husband Sychaeus,[7] while Aeneas was destined by the same almighty god-of-gods to establish Rome as the heart of a new empire.[8]

Albeit with dissimilar outcomes, Aeneas and dido have one more thing in common – they both exercise their free will and thus both exhibit the choice and influence human beings have over their own course of life. Aeneas, although somewhat unwillingly, chose to comply with his destiny, at the cost of his love and perhaps even at the cost of greater happiness:

[Aeneas], conscious, however, of Jupiter’s warning,

Never once blinked, and he struggled to keep his anxiety stifled

Deep in his heart. Yet he briefly replied: ‘That I owe you, my ruler,

All you could list in your speech I would never deny. You have

earned it.

Memory will never elicit regret for my missing Elissa

While I remember myself, while my spirit rules in this body!

Now, a few words in defence. This escape: slipping out like a bandit,

That was not what I hoped.


Jupiter now has dispatched his divine intercessor, who bears me

Personal orders, I swear by them both, through the swift-blowing



[To Dido:] Stop enraging me, and yourself, with all this complaining.

Going to Italy’s not my choice.’[9]

Aeneas's ambivalence is unmistakable. On the one hand he asserts that he desires to follow Jupiter's orders, while at the same time he claims that his choice is not, in fact, his own. Be that as it may, Aeneas's choice is what makes him the hero of the epic.[10] Better yet, it is the gradual shift in Aeneas's decisions, beginning with impulsive and fate-disobeying battle-charging in book II,[11] and culminating with complete acceptance as he happily navigates his ships at the onset of book VII,[12] that makes him the hero of the epic.

Dido, on the other hand, was not as fortunate; madly in love with Aeneas – albeit by Cupid's intervention,[13] which evokes once more the question of humans' accountability – she forgets her calling:

Bastions started no longer rise, youths’ military training

Halts. The port’s harbour defences aren’t readied for war. As


Ceases, the growth of the daunting and massive walls is disrupted:

Cranes that reach high to the skies are left dangling in idle suspension.[14]

Now, she is flooding the people with many crosscurrents of gossip,

Singing of things done, things not done, without any distinction:

That some man named Aeneas has come; that his bloodline is Trojan.

That lovely Dido is deeming it proper to join herself with him;

That they are passing long winter hours in the high life together;

Cupid’s slaves in a shameless love, their kingdoms forgotten.[15]

But Dido commits another act of choice against her fate – suicide:

[S]he started to let her thoughts wander in every direction,

Seeking to douse … the light she detested.

[…] then unsheathes the Dardanian swordblade.

This was the special gift she’d requested, but not for this purpose.

[…] ‘Spoils that were so sweet once, while fate and its god gave permission,

Take to yourselves this soul. Cut me loose from all of this anguish.

[…] ‘We’ll die without vengeance, But let us die! This is it, this the path that I choose to the dead world.

[…] Juno Almighty pitied her difficult death with its painful

Anguish long drawn out, and dispatched to her, down from Olympus,

Iris, to unmoor her struggling soul from the limbs’ web of bondage.

Dido was dying a death that was neither deserved nor predestined,

But premature: a poor woman, swept up by the quick fire of madness.

[…] Prosperpina hadn’t yet taken the locks of her golden

Tresses, and thereby consigned her being to Stygian Orcus…[16]

Here too, it is clear that Dido cares little for what is expected of her. Her references to fate and Fortuna are of a passive and hind-sighted nature – I am here for they have allowed it – but she says nothing of actively following her destiny. On the contrary, Dido's action and initiatives aim to deceive and circumvent her fate: She uses a sword that was not made to this end; she tricks her own sister; she asks the gods to let her die, and finally, she relies on Juno's pity and mercy to end her life, although Juno knows that Dido's death is premature.

It seems that humans have a choice whether to follow they destiny, or god given fate. In addition to Aeneas and Dido, one should also consider the death of Euryalus and Nisus and book IX, and the vivid words of Jupiter:

Then the all-powerful father, who has prime authority over things,

began (the noble hall of the gods fell silent as he spoke

… 'What each [Trojan and Rutulian] has instigated

shall bring its own suffering and success. Jupiter is king of all,

equally: the fates will determine the way.'[17]

Although Jupiter's message is clear – each is responsible for his own suffering and/or success – his words also raise the question whether the gods, and all-mighty Jupiter among them, are in a similar position, and even whether the gods themselves have a free will.

Gods operating in the human realm – Do as I say, but only if you feel like it

Although it might seem intuitive at first glance, or perhaps even trivial, I wish to address the relationship between gods and fate by first exploring the notion that the gods have an influence on human life. This point is made clear by Juno's command to burn the fleet's ships, executed by Iris in V.606-663 and in Cupid's assignment, given by Venus, in book I.[18]

Nevertheless, George E. Duckworth claimed that these passages can be explained by what he called 'double causation,'[19] where the divine act falls in perfect accord with the will and inner-motivation of the mortals affected by them. Furthermore, he proposed that this double causation could be applied to the great majority of divine acts in the Aeneid. Duckworth points the reader to V.615-6 where, preceding Iris' arrival and torching of the fleet, the women say: "‘We’re exhausted, yet so many seaways, So much water is still to be crossed!’ Many voices sing one song. Tired of enduring the high seas’ hardships, they pray for a city."[20] He argues that such high levels of fatigue and frustration brought the women to the brink of setting the ships on fire, prior to Iris' intervention. In addition, he writes in regard to Cupid's mission: "… The divine intervention seems hardly necessary; Dido's admiration of Aeneas, the similarity of their experiences, and her growing interest as he tells the story of his adventure would explain her attitude and the conflict in her mind beginning of IV."[21] Duckworth argues that divine intervention and human psychological motives go hand-in-hand in the Aeneid, therefore he questions if the gods possess genuine influence over humans.

However, divine interventions in the Aeneid are not limited to human feelings and action. Consider, for example book I, where the enraged Juno asks Aeolus, lord of the winds, to create a storm and sink Aeneas' ships, and where Neptune, god of the seas, rebukes the winds for affecting the ocean and brings Aeneas and his fleet to refuge in Libya.[22] In this passage, and in many others, the human psychological motive is irrelevant. In conclusion, it seems that the supreme beings do have an influence on human life – an influence that might not be limited by humans' psychological reality. Furthermore, in this passage from book I two, conflicting, divine acts are present. If the gods are indeed only external agents of an internal human motive, is Neptune the 'real' agent here, or is Juno? This conflict brings me to the next issue.

At this point I have shown that humans may choose their own path, but that leading a life against their fate might bring dire consequences upon them. In addition, I have claimed that the gods have an influence on human life, whether direct or indirect. It seems that both Gods and fate can determine the future of a human being. In the Aeneid, although he could have depicted a more coherent – but rather dull – reality, Virgil puts his gods in direct conflict with fate. These instances are particularly interesting since they allow an insight to the nature of the relationship between these two life course altering forces – what is the order of precedence between them, do they have direct influence over each other (i.e. do the gods have a fate?; can the gods prescribe or alter a predetermined fate?), or conversely, are they in fact one and the same?

Gods or fate – are the gods superior to fate, or are they subjected to it?

Albeit an active agent in determining the course of life of mortal in the Aeneid, Fate does not have a tangible form in the epic – it has no embodying figure and it does not have a voice of itself. Therefore, when exploring the role of fate in the actions of gods, we must rely solely on the explicit utterances of the divine.

I wish to return to the conflicting actions of Juno and Neptune discussed above. Early in book I the reader learns of Juno that:

Juno, who kept her wound eternally fresh in her bosom,

Said to herself: ‘Am I beaten, my plans all dead? Is preventing

Teucer’s descendant from landing as Italy’s king beyond my power?

Granted, the Fates are opposed.

Inwardly spinning such thoughts, heart blazing with anger, the goddess

Comes to Aeolia, storm-cloud land, ever raging with tempests.[23]

Juno is fully aware of the existence of a destiny. Furthermore, she acts knowingly, and willingly, against it. However, as mentioned before, Neptune interferes, restores order, and tells the winds: "you will pay for your crimes. Your lashing won’t be just verbal."[24] Notice however that Neptune speaks not of punishing Aeolus, and certainly not of punishing Juno, the mind behind the deed, but of punishing the winds. This passage shows that Juno is unable to change fate, in this case Aeneas' fate, although she is able to act against it, to delay its execution. Moreover, Juno, although committing an act of defiance that should have severe consequences if it were committed by a mortal – recall Dido's rebellious acts – goes unpunished.

Another interesting passage in this regard is III.373-80, where Aeneas tells of Helenus' prophecy:

There, as a priest with divine inspiration, he sang these predictions:

“Son of the goddess: that you’re being guided and watched by some


Powers as you travel the deep is quite obviously true. For God’s ruler

Thus divides fate into lots, creates change. That’s how order progresses.

But the Fates prevent Helenus knowing

All the remainder; and speaking them’s banned by Saturnian Juno.[25]

A few entities are directly addressed, or at least their existence is implied, in this passage. A list of them, by ascending 'divinity,' could be the following: Firstly, there is Helenus, 'a priest with divine inspiration.' Secondly we may point to Aeneas. Though he is the 'son of the goddess' he is not as divine as the third entity, Saturnian Juno, a goddess herself. Then, in this divine list comes 'God's ruler,'[26] although it is not clear to whom this refers. While it could refer to Jupiter – elsewhere referred as 'Father of gods and ruler of mortals'[27] – but it could also be a higher divine entity, for Jupiter is also a god, therefore a higher master of gods would also stand above Jupiter. The identity of this 'higher master' could be insinuated by the latter lines of the passage, where the Fates are active – preventing Helenus from knowing – but are also referred to as being separate to Juno and the other gods.

Conclusion – One God to Rule Them All

In a passage quoted above, Jupiter says "Jupiter is king of all, ‎equally: the fates will determine the way."[28] This is clearly enigmatic: Jupiter cannot be king of all if the fates will determine, and the fates cannot determine if Jupiter is king of all. A possible reconciliation is that Jupiter really is the one to whom Helenus referred as 'divides fate into lots' and the master of fates, but that on this specific occasion, where Jupiter is forced to choose between his wife and his daughter, he allows his subordinate deities, fates, some autonomy, thus reducing some of his own accountability. Another somewhat similar solution is that Jupiter and the fates are in fact the same being, the 'high master' regarded in III.374-80, and that when Jupiter says that the fates will decide he refers to himself.[29] However, a more plausible and complete explanation in my opinion is that although Jupiter is the king of all things, he is not as omnipotent and omniscient as a monotheistic divine deity is.

While Dido as queen was able to assign lots and issue laws to her citizens,[30] she was still subject to a higher force. In fact, in a similar manner, we could infer the existence of a higher being above King Jupiter – a higher being whose powers are limited only by its will, whose decrees are seen as fate by humans and gods alike, and whose agents of change in the world are primarily the gods, but also mere mortals. The existence of such a being could explain the idiosyncrasies in the relationship between fate, gods and men shown in this paper.

In the Comedy,[31] Dante's masterpiece, Virgil is the guide of a Christian journey through Inferno. Dante's choice is rather peculiar: while sentencing Virgil to the hell – alongside Homer, Ovid and Horace and others – for he "lived before the Christians lived, [and] did not worship God aright,"[32] Dante sees in Virgil a virtue that the other poets did not possess – he grants Virgil a key position in his journey, and the reader is left wondering what is that merit.

It seems that John MacInnes might have found an explanation to the incomplete, or uneasy, feeling the reader gets when he is forced to contemplate the relationship between men, gods, and fate in the Aeneid, and that he might have an insight to what was the merit Dante saw. MacInnes wrote of Virigl that he was probably monotheistic, and that it is possible that he "kept the figures of the gods, taken from Homer and the earlier Roman annalists but purified, in obedience to the epic convention and to the prejudices of Augustus, who thought he could restore to a generation of scoffers the credulous religion of his ancestors by reviving old rites and externals of belief."[33] It might have to do with the fact that Virgil converges two sets of theological believe in one work, his own monotheistic belief, and a more popular polytheistic belief.


[1] Jorge Luis Borges, "The Lottery in Babylon," in Collected fictions, ed. Andrew Hurley (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 57.

[2] See for example David's crime and punishment in the tale of Bat-Sheva and Ouria: 2 Samuel 11-12.

[3] For a review see: Timothy O'Connor, "Free Will," in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Stanford: 2011).

[4] Virgil, Aeneid, trans. Frederick Ahl (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[5] In this regard Aeneas too is mortal, despite his celestial heritage; See: George E. Duckworth, "Fate and Free Will in Vergil's "Aeneid"," The Classical Journal 51, no. 8 (1956).

[6] Virgil, Aeneid: I.628-9.

[7] Ibid., IV.15-29.

[8] See, for example: ibid., II.777-83, IV.229-31.

[9] Ibid., IV.330-61.

[10] I have shown only one instance, but books I-VI contain a vast multitude of examples of Aeneas's choices of destiny or divine command over his own impulses. See: Louise E. Matthaei, "The Fates, the Gods, and the Freedom of Man's Will in the Aeneid," The Classical Quarterly 11, no. 1 (1917).

[11] Virgil, Aeneid: II.289-308.

[12] ibid., VII.36.

[13] ibid., I.657-60.

[14] ibid., IV 85-9.

[15] Ibid., IV.188-94. The words Virgil chose to describe the gossip's nature are interesting. I wish to suggest that describing her as 'Singing of things done, things not done, without any distinction‎‎' might have served the purpose of defending Aeneas's reputation, while still causing damage to Dido's.

[16] ibid., IV.630-99.

[17] ibid., X.99-111.

[18] Ibid., I.657-60.

[19] Duckworth, "Fate and Free Will in Vergil's "Aeneid"."

[20] Virgil, Aeneid: V.615-6.

[21] Duckworth, "Fate and Free Will in Vergil's "Aeneid"," p. 358.

[22] Virgil, Aeneid: I.36-160.

[23] Ibid., I.36-51.

[24] Ibid., I.136.

[25] Ibid., III.374-80.

[26] In Hebrew this phrase is translated 'Ruler of Gods' (אדון-כל-אלוה), and not 'God is ruler'; X.1-2 could refer to both of these possible meanings.

מרו פובליוס ורגיליוס, אינאיס, בתרגום שלמה דיקמן (ירושלים: מוסד ביאליק, 2005).

[27] Virgil, Aeneid: X.1-2.

[28] ibid., X.99-111.

[29] This view is supported by the acts Jupiter commits to influence the battle between Trojans and the Rutulians. See ibid., X.689.

[30] Ibid., I.505-09.

[31] Alighieri Dante, Inferno, trans. Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander, 1st ed. (New York: ‎Doubleday, 2000).‎

[32] Ibid., IV. 34-9.

[33] John MacInnes, "The Conception of Fata in the Aeneid," The Classical Review 24, no. 6 (1910): p. 170.


Borges, Jorge Luis. "The Lottery in Babylon." In Collected Fictions, edited by Andrew Hurley. ix, 565 p. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Dante, Alighieri. Inferno. Translated by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander. 1st ed. New York: Doubleday, 2000

Duckworth, George E. "Fate and Free Will in Vergil's "Aeneid"." The Classical Journal 51, no. 8 (1956): 357-64.

MacInnes, John. "The Conception of Fata in the Aeneid." The Classical Review 24, no. 6 (1910): 169-74.

Matthaei, Louise E. "The Fates, the Gods, and the Freedom of Man's Will in the Aeneid." The Classical Quarterly 11, no. 1 (1917): 11-26.

O'Connor, Timothy. "Free Will." In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, 2011.

Virgil. Aeneid [in English]. Translated by Frederick Ahl. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

ורגיליוס, מרו פובליוס. אינאיס בתרגום שלמה דיקמן. ירושלים: מוסד ביאליק, 2005.

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