Fate was very important to the Ancient Roman culture which The Aeneid exalts. This is hard for us in Western culture to understand, especially for my fellow Americans. The American Dream, after all, isn’t about following fate, but carving out your own destiny, making yourself a success, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, and all sorts of other lofty thoughts that have been relegated to cliché.
*Well, a few centuries anyway. Which is pretty much the same thing, obviously.
But in Ancient Rome, it wasn’t just what you did that brought you glory. It was who you were descended from, whether you were following your destiny as the fates and gods had willed, and whether you submitted to that fate gracefully or like a fool struggled against it.
Not that this idea of submitting to fate was unique to the Romans, but it certainly wasn’t the universal belief in the ancient world. Look at The Odyssey for a good comparison. Here is a hero, Odysseus (called Ulysses in Rome) who used his wits and his strength to fight against annoyed gods who did NOT want him to get home. He struggled against Poseidon and Juno and all sorts of minor demigods and mythological creatures, but he prevailed.
Then look at Aeneas. Sure, Juno has it in for him. But he’s the son of Venus, who is on his side and gets her husband Vulcan to build him weapons that cut through enemy swords. Mars, god of war, is on his side. Jupiter, who Virgil constantly refers to as impartial, is partial to him. Apollo helps him, and Diana assents to Aeneas’ victory—even when that means her protégé Camilla must die for fighting against him.
Aeneas doesn’t really have to struggle against anyone but mortal enemies, and since Virgil constantly is drumming into the reader how Aeneas is the best warrior ever, we know he will succeed.
Alright, so maybe Aeneas gets everything handed to him on a silver platter. Maybe his struggle isn’t physical, but emotional? After all, a lot of the drama in other ancient heroic tales, such as Jason and the Argonauts, is about the hero’s self-doubt. In this latter example, Jason is a lot like Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings (the movie, not so much the book), constantly depressed, unsure of himself, feeling unworthy of the trust of his men. In fact, a better (though less well-known) example might be Captain Horatio Hornblower, whose genius and heroism is obvious to everyone but himself.
But no; Aeneas doesn’t deal with that sort of uncertainty either. His struggle isn’t with his concept with himself at all. Look at how later on in the story he tells his son Ascanius/Iulus, “Hey son, if you want to see a role model today, just watch me as I am awesome. Then whenever you have any doubts or questions in your future life, you just ask yourself What Would Aeneas Do? Because I am awesome.”
So if Aeneas doesn’t struggle against gods, or monsters, or himself, or other men (much), then what makes him a hero? Frankly, not much. The one thing he does struggle with is his Destiny. After all, being told by your mom as she’s disguised as an African Maiden that you’re going to lay the foundations for a worldwide empire is a heavy burden to bear. Especially when to fulfill your destiny you give up your hot Carthaginian girlfriend, wander the known world until you find the appointed place to build a brand new city, and then enter into a regional war that will cost you many a friend’s life. Over and over Aeneas is forced to choose between easy, complacent success (living with Dido, building a New Troy in Sicily, etc.) or struggling to fulfill the fate that will lay the groundwork for (according to Virgil) the grandest civilization that will last forever:* Rome.
When I think of it that way, Aeneas was not too bad as a hero after all. Of course Virgil was writing just before the birth of Christ, so any relation to Biblical theology is very tenuous. But from a Christian perspective, the idea of struggling and striving for an eternal kingdom rather than settling for temporary happiness takes a certain kind of hero that we don’t usually read about in epic poetry, much less see in real life as often as we might wish.