Scott McGill looks at the flawed hero of the final books of Virgil’s Aeneid.
Virgil Reading his Aeneid to Augustus (Jean Bruno Gassies, 1817)
Is Aeneas capable of love? The obvious place in the Aeneid to look for an answer is Book Four and the story of Dido and Aeneas: famously, he is no simple romantic lead there, but rather a heartbreaker and the broken-hearted, who must cauterize his private feelings for the Carthaginian Queen in order to do his fated duty and arrive in Italy. But there is another tragedy in the Aeneid that raises questions about whether, and how, Aeneas loves. This is the death of Pallas, the young son of King Evander of Pallanteum. In Aeneid 11, Aeneas mourns the fallen youth in scenes that show him to be a master maestus, a man of exquisite sadness. This Aeneas is not as well-known as the Aeneas of Book Four. But the content and texture of his sadness, and the questions surrounding his love for Pallas, are crucial to understanding his character in Aeneid 11 and at other points in the epic—especially (via contrast) its climactic close.
Aeneas shown the body of Pallas by John Everett Millais
Aeneid 11 opens as an adagio movement after the intensity of the previous book. In Aeneid 10, the Trojan and Italian forces square off in vicious fighting. The action includes Pallas’ encounter with Turnus, the formidable enemy who ruthlessly and arrogantly kills him. In response, Aeneas turns berserker and goes on a fighting rampage through to the end of the book. Here, in this aristeia, he is far from his best: showing absolutely no mercy in his frenzied rage, he cuts down everyone in his path, including sympathetic victims, and even takes men captive to serve as human sacrifices to Pallas’ shade (10.517-20). Traces of that figure remain in the opening of Aeneid 11—most obviously when he sends off the captives to be sacrificed at a funeral for Pallas in Pallanteum (11.81-82). Yet now, on the morning after the battle in Aeneid 10, a quiet and sad Aeneas sees to the pious duties that face him in the aftermath of the fight: he makes an offering to Mars for the Trojan victory and prepares to tend to the Trojan and allied dead. Of primary concern is Pallas, whose corpse lies in Aeneas’ tent. The Trojan leader mourns over the body (11.29-58) and then prepares an impressive cortège for Pallas (11.59-93), which he sees off with a spare and powerful farewell (11.96-98):
Nos alias hinc ad lacrimas eadem horrida belli
fata vocant: salve aeternum mihi, maxime Palla,
(the same dread destiny of war calls us to other tears; hail forever, most noble Pallas, and forever farewell).
The body of Pallas that Aeneas finds in his tent is a remarkable sight. Its color is white, niveus (11.39), an adjective that suggests not the pallor of a faded corpse, but rather beautiful radiance, and more specifically, the partly feminine beauty of the pretty young male. Similar is Pallas’ smooth, hairless chest (levique . . . pectore, 11.40). In ancient Rome, such a male pectus embodied delicate, effeminate, and youthful prettiness, as opposed to a hairy chest that then, as now, usually signified rough virility.
The Death of Pallas (Jacques Henri Sablet, 1778)
How we readers see Pallas’ corpse is how Aeneas sees it. The description is focalized through him, i.e., it presents the body from his point of view. Hence in Aeneas’ eyes, the dead Pallas is a lovely, effeminate youth laid out on a funeral couch. But what does Aeneas feel as he looks? Some critics, notably Michael Putnam, argue that his perception of Pallas’ beauty points to his sexual attraction to the boy. This was an erotic love, they claim, ended almost at its beginning in an untimely collision of eros and thanatos. Aeneas and Pallas thus join Nisus and Euryalus—whose tale of love and tragic death is told in Aeneid 9—as a homoerotic pair in the Aeneid. In addition, they follow in the tradition of Achilles and Patroclus, whose relationship was understood as a homoerotic one from at least the fifth century BCE. This is another way that Virgil bases Aeneas and Pallas on those Homeric characters: not only does Aeneas grieve and avenge the death of Pallas as Achilles grieved and avenged the death of Patroclus in the Iliad, but he also loves Pallas similarly to how Achilles loved Patroclus.
Combined with this post-Homeric Aeneas is a proto-Roman one. While the relationship between Aeneas and Pallas has Iliadic roots, it is also a version of the contubernium, in which a Roman aristocratic father put his son in the care of a military commander on campaign. Acting in loco parentis, the commander looked out for the youth while introducing him to the business of war. It is extremely difficult to harmonize that model for Aeneas and Pallas with an erotic tie between them: it would not have been acceptable for a Roman commander in such a paternal role to treat his aristocratic charge, and quasi-child, as his love object. But the question is whether this excludes a homoerotic reading of the relationship. An interpretation based on the idea that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers lies in conflict with an interpretation based on the contubernium model. Both, however, have substantial textual support. It seems best to take shelter in negative capability, Keats’ phrase for the capacity to hold contradictory ideas in place and to remain in uncertainty about them. Virgil challenges his reader to view Aeneas’ relationship to Pallas along two lines that are very hard, if not impossible, to reconcile; instead of a clear dichotomy, there is an unresolved tension between opposites. As a post-Homeric lover, Aeneas grieves the loss of a beautiful eromenos in the ugliness of war. As a commander in a proto-Roman contubernium, he grieves the loss of a quasi-child – and it is no accident that Aeneas ends his lament thinking of Pallas and his biological son Iulus together (11.57-58):
ei mihi, quantum
praesidium Ausonia, et quantum tu perdis, Iule
(ah, how great a bulwark you lose, Italy – how great you too, Iulus).
Later, when Aeneas prepares the funeral procession that will bring Pallas’ body to Pallanteum and Evander, he drapes the corpse in one of two robes woven by Dido and given to him (11.72-77). This can be seen as a moment where Aeneas takes an object from one lover who has died and bestows it on another who has died. Yet there is more it than that. The passage on the robes follows an epic simile at 11.68-71 that equates Pallas’ corpse with a plucked flower; the simile is derived from Catullus (62.43-47; see also 11.22-24 and Aeneid 9.435-37), who uses it to describe a girl’s loss of virginity. The robes of Dido lend further sexuality to the description of the dead Pallas. They imply that sex and death are joined in him, as they are in the story of Dido; in his case, death has come and “deflowered” the (feminized) youth. The further suggestion is that this perverts, as well as precludes, his own loss of virginity, which he did not live long enough to experience.
For Aeneas himself, however, there is something else that links Pallas and Dido: they each elicit from him a mix of grief and guilt. Both emotions are on display in his speech over the corpse of Pallas, although not in equal measure (11.42-58). Aeneas’ personal feelings for the boy are clear from his sorrow. But those feelings did not have much time to ripen, and in the speech, they are secondary to his quasi-paternal guilt at not being able to protect his charge. That guilt, moreover, is directed toward Pallas’ actual father, Evander. Aeneas devotes the bulk of his speech to the king; what pains him is his failure to meet the responsibilities of fides, or good-faith obligations, to him by looking out for his son (see esp. 11.55, haec mea magna fides? [‘is this my great pledge of trust?’]). As was the case when Aeneas first heard on the battlefield that Pallas was dead (10.515-17), his thoughts when he mourns over the fallen boy center on Evander. While he feels keen sympathy for the bereaved father, who has endured the worst tragedy that a parent can, he grieves more his own inability to honor the pact that he made with the king and to perform rightly his contubernium-like duties. Here Aeneas is, again, a proto-Roman, because faithful to the cardinal Roman virtue fides. He suffers because he has failed a valued ally—and, not insignificantly, an ally living in a place that would become Rome.
When Pallas’ funeral procession arrives in Pallanteum, a distraught Evander rushes out to meet it and delivers an anguished lament over his child (11.152-81). In it, he absolves the Trojans of responsibility for Pallas’ death (11.164-65). This implies that he himself does not view the tragedy as Aeneas does and blame him for his failure to live up to fides. Yet toward the end of his speech, Evander makes it clear that Aeneas still owes him good-faith recompense: he calls for the Trojan to avenge Pallas’ death by killing Turnus (11.176-79).
Aeneas does exactly that at the end of the Aeneid (12.941-52). But it is not his fides-infused obligation to Evander that drives him at that moment. Instead, Aeneas notoriously approaches the killing of Turnus as an act of personal vengeance; rather than recalling his duty to Evander, he thinks of Pallas alone and rises to avenge him. In addition, Aeneas is filled with atavistic rage and fury, rather than any high-minded sense of needing to meet the responsibilities of fides. This is an extremely dark way for the epic to fade to black. The grieving Aeneas of Aeneid 11 is gone, and replaced by a far more menacing and even terrifying figure. His suffering as a lover, a quasi-father, and an ally has turned to red-hot furor et ira, rage and anger; there are no softer emotions, and no statement about duty. In this final glimpse of him, raw wrath, and even hate, rule and push him beyond the reach of mercy, as they had done in Aeneid 10. Such is Virgil’s achievement: to present a hero of varied moods, motivations, and conduct, messy rather than tidy, with real complexity instead of flatly ideal.
Scott McGill is Professor in the department of Modern and Classical Literatures and Cultures at Rice University, Texas. His edition of Virgil Aeneid XI was published in 2020 by Cambridge University Press.