Fatherhood in Virgil’s Aeneid

“All the evidence suggests a responsible male, ready and able to make significant and social commitment, is a rarity in any society.”  —Fr. Lawrence Porter, A Guide to the Church

The Roman hero of Virgil’s epic, known originally in the Latin as pius Aeneas (“pious Aeneas”), earns many similar epithets throughout the story. He is praised as Aeneas the true, the devoted, and the just. He is also honored with the title of “Father Aeneas” as he exemplifies the many attributes of a dedicated father committed to the protection, care, and happiness of his family. In one of the most poignant scenes from the book, Aeneas is escaping from the burning city of Troy sacked by the Greeks, but he safeguards his family through all the dangers and destruction of war. Instead of thinking of his own self-defense by sudden flight, Aeneas leaves the demolished city carrying his aged father on his back, holding his young son by the hand, and glancing behind him to be assured of his wife’s safety:

So come, dear father, climb on to my shoulders!
I will carry you on my back. This labor of love
Will never wear me down …
Little Iulus, walk beside me, and you, my wife,
Follow me at a distance, in my footsteps.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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As this scene illustrates, Aeneas carries many responsibilities, and the weight of these obligations and cares depict him as a filial son, loving father, and faithful husband committed to these duties that he takes seriously, placing his family’s safety before his own needs. They are “labors of love.” A good father gladly and willingly protects and defends his family.

Commissioned by the gods to found Rome and to unite Trojan blood with Latin stock to create a new race to rule the world under the rule of law and to “shut the grim gates of war,” Aeneas leads the survivors of the Trojan War westward to Italy with a profound sense of duty to the gods, to his ancestors, and to his country. To Aeneas manhood is obeying the gods, honoring promises, putting others first and himself last, placing duty above pleasure, and living a life of integrity. His whole sense of identity (“I am Aeneas, duty-bound”) depends on his love of justice, giving to all people their proper due, both friends and enemies. A good father knows that he is called to serve those he loves, even sacrifice or die for them.

While the cardinal virtue of justice acknowledges what is due to others as human beings, the virtue of pietas refers to the justice due to those to whom one owes great debts that one cannot repay in kind. Thus Aeneas feels duty-bound to obey and revere the gods, to venerate and respect his father Anchises, and to cherish the sacred household gods he guards on his journey. A good father loves justice in all its many forms and renders justice to all persons. He feels bound by conscience to keep his word in his political and military negotiations. Always he is mindful of his special obligation to his son Ascanius for whom he travels across an ocean, undergoes great labors and sufferings on the sea, and fights a war for the security of his son’s future. Fatherhood is using foresight on behalf of others, providing for the future happiness of a family, and dedicating one’s life for one’s beloved and for the common good of all. A good father labors, suffers and endures for those he loves.

Aeneas’s selflessness governs his destiny and defines his vocation as the founder of Rome. He always acts on behalf of others, never for the sake of self-glory. In all the emotions he experiences from the sorrow of witnessing the destruction of Troy to the fear of descending into the underworld to the love he feels for Queen Dido to the anger that provokes him to wage war in Italy, Aeneas exemplifies a strength of will power, patience, perseverance, and long-suffering that sustains him as he encounters first-hand “the tears of things” that test every man’s fortitude. Aeneas is the strong, dependable father, an impregnable rock whose steadfastness endures all the storms of life. Unwavering in devotion to his fatherly responsibilities, Aeneas resembles a mighty tree “as firm as a sturdy oak grown tough with age … so firm the hero stands: buffeted left and right by storms of appeals, he takes the full force of love and suffering deep in his great heart. His will stands unmoved.” A good father is a pillar of moral courage.

While the angry goddess Juno unleashes storms at sea to break Aeneas’s resolve, while Queen Dido explodes with rage when Aeneas refuses to marry her and rule Carthage, and while the Latins under Queen Amata and Turnus wage a brutal war to repel the Trojans from their shores, Aeneas’s self-possession and stoic fortitude do not let the mutability of fickle fortune with its erratic changes weaken his fidelity to duty and his loyalty to his family and nation. True to his promises, he exemplifies the meaning of vocation, a man who hears the voices of the gods appealing to his conscience and always responds “yes”—no matter the difficulty of the labor or the cost of the sacrifice. A good father, like Aeneas “the true,” never wavers in his vocation.

The life of Aeneas summarizes all the attributes of noble manhood that generous men exemplify who found families and seek the happiness of those they love. A leader who embodies Roman manhood in the form of pietas (justice), virtus (moral courage), and labor (Herculean effort), he never complains of the burdens and sufferings of his vocation and never lets the defeats and tragedies of life rob him of his equanimity. Seeking Italy to found the home of the Roman people, he never wanders off course or lets the temptations of the world divert him from his God-given destiny. Loving the highest moral ideals more than glory or pleasure, Aeneas the devoted never forgets “the one thing necessary”—to be true to God, home, and country.

Editor’s note: The image above titled “Aeneas flees from Troy” was painted by Pompeo Batoni in 1750.


  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian (1941-2018) was a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children’s Literature.

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