Reading Vergil’s Aeneid
28 April 2005
Pater Aeneas, Filius Ascanius: Fathers and Sons in Relation to Aeneas’ Quest for Pietas in Vergil’s Aeneid
In Book VI of Vergil’s Aeneid, Aeneas encounters at least three pairs of fathers and sons: Brutus and his sons, Marcellus the Elder and Younger, and Daedalus and Icarus. The concentration of these three father-son pairs illustrates the importance of parental relationships throughout the Aeneid. Loving father-son relationships play prominent roles in at least eight of the Aeneid’s twelve books. However, the central father son relationship, between Aeneas and his son Ascanius, is best described as cold and distant. Aeneas’ relationship with his own son is problematic, particularly in light of these other caring father-son relationships. However, all of these father-son combinations (including Aeneas’ relationship with his own father Anchises) speak volumes about Aeneas as a father, Ascanius as a son and the correct way to lead the Trojan people. The relationships between Lausus and Mezentius, Evander and Pallas, Aeneas and Pallas and Aeneas and Anchises all reveal facets of Aeneas’ personality and the correct way to rule with pietas. Each father-son relationship in the Aeneid approaches perfection, yet none (including Aeneas’ relationship with his own son) ever achieve the perfect (or at least Vergilian) idea of filial and paternal love. However, a synthesis of the pitfalls and triumphs of each provides a picture of Vergillan perfection and the correct way to both parent and govern.
Lausus and Mezentius
After watching his father Mezentius be wounded by grief-stricken Aeneas (after the death of Pallas), Lausus first helps his father escape to safety, then faces the Trojan prince himself. When Aeneas sees the clearly inferior Etruscan standing against him, he mocks his opponent, telling him “Your loyalty has tricked you into recklessness.” With that, Aeneas stabs Lausus, killing him. Once Mezentius realizes that his son has not only died, but died “both to avenge his father’s wound and to protect him,” he himself faces Aeneas, and is slain. However, as his dying request, he asks that his body not be sent back to his people (who will surely mutilate it, because he has been a despotic, impious ruler), but that Aeneas bury his body alongside Lausus’.
There are two very important father-son dimensions that should be focused on in examining the deaths of Lausus and Mezentius. The first is Aeneas’ role in the death of both father and son, and the second is Vergil’s characterization of Mezentius (and its parallels to Aeneas’ own role as father).
First, it is important to analyze Aeneas’ reaction to Lausus’ bravery in the name of his father. Rather than admire the young man’s courage and praise his piety, Aeneas instead mocks him. By facing Aeneas, Lausus is doing no more than Aeneas himself would do for his own father. In fact, when Anchises announces that he will not leave Troy, even though the city is crumbling around him, Aeneas puts himself in harm’s way by attempting to continue to fight. Even after Anchises agrees to leave, Aeneas takes his father onto his own back, and carries him safely out of the city: “lifting up my father, I made for the mountains.” Though he does not die for his father, his actions are akin to Lausus’ challenge. Gaskin is correct in questioning if “Aeneas suggests that Lausus is being deceived by his filial piety… what sort of concept of pietas is that?” In fact, in his rage Aeneas seems to have lost all sense of pietas. Earlier, he refused to acknowledge the pleas of Magus, which appeal to his sense of both filial and paternal bonds. Vergil makes sure that “the last words spoken before Lausus dies are Aeneas’ taunts about his pietas overruling his martial inadequacy,” and we must assume that he does so for a reason.
The reason is simple:...