Aeneas the Failed Priest by Samuel Bussey


     Aeneas’ Religious Leadership and Roman Sacrificial Ritual in the Aeneid

        In the Aeneid, Virgil’s hero Aeneas faces numerous hardships and misfortunes before he can bring his gods to Latium and found a city.1 His goal is both political and religious in nature, and after the fall of Troy he becomes both the political and religious leader of his people.2 He is responsible for maintaining the pax deorum or peace of the gods, which for the Romans was a necessary prerequisite to enjoying the favour of the gods in their endeavours.3 The pax deorum is maintained by a strict adherence to ritual stoicheia, or temporary principles of religious training. These come in the form of taboos or restrictions for humanity, while humanity lives in the minority under guardians or stewards, in this case the Greco-Roman gods.4 Thus, from a Roman perspective, every misfortune they suffered could be traced back to a breach of these ritual principles. On numerous occasions, the misfortunes that befall the Trojans in the Aeneid are a direct result of Aeneas unintentionally violating the ritual stoicheia of Roman sacrifice. In the light of Roman religious practices, Aeneas’ religious leadership and his violations of Roman ritual stoicheia have important implications for our understanding of both the Aeneid and the Roman view of sacrifice.

          In order to understand the role that Aeneas assumes after escaping from Troy, it is necessary to realise the implications that the fall of their city has for the Trojan people. With their city captured, their temples burnt and their king dead, their identity as a people is completely altered. Having been citizens of a polis, ruled by a king, they are now a tribe of fugitives, led by a chieftain. Having been listeners to the sky world, seeking the will of the gods, they become listeners to the ancestors, looking to the spirits of the dead for answers. Aeneas is the leader of a people pulled in four different directions by the spirits of their ancestors, their future descendents, the gods of heaven, and their own desires. As their leader, he is constantly subject to these tensions.6

          Aeneas’ role as the Trojans’ leader is both political and religious in nature. He is the hero and, by sheer kleos, the chieftain of the tribe, but he also clearly takes a leadership role in conducting the Trojans’ ritual sacrifices. While not perhaps a flamen Dialis, a priest of Jupiter bound by many taboos, he is more than merely a paterfamilias, a father acting as a priest for private household worship.7 This is seen in that he is clearly performing the sacra publica rather than the sacra privata. These sacra publica are “sacred rites which are performed for the benefit and to fill the needs either of Rome as a whole or of its official divisions,” whereas the sacra privata are “those which are performed for and by individuals, the [clans] and unofficial bodies.”8

          As a heroic-priestly leader, the onus is on Aeneas to maintain the pax deorum and sacrifice is crucial to maintaining that peace. Sacrifice is “the chief religious act, the act by which Romans communicated and communed with the gods, keeping the gods happy so Romans could be happy.”9 The way to keep the gods happy was to maintain a strict adherence to ritual stoicheia, sacrificing the required animals, in the required way, accompanied by the required prayers. Any intentional breach of the ritual requirements was unforgivable and could not be atoned for, but an unintentional error could be set right by the offering of a piaculum (an expiatory sacrifice intended to placate the gods). An incorrect ritual had to be performed again, and until this sacrifice was done properly, the person made impious by the error would remain in the gods’ deep disfavour. It is therefore interesting that at several points in Virgil’s epic, Aeneas unintentionally violates ritual stoicheia, incurring the wrath of the gods.

           Throughout the Aeneid, Aeneas and the Trojans perform sacrifices in order to maintain the gods’ favour. For a number of these, a knowledge of Roman ritual stoicheia is necessary to understand Virgil’s use of these practices in the Aeneid. As Dyson notes, “Roman cult forms a vital ‘intertext’ to the Aeneid. Virgil alludes to religious practices just as much as he alludes to the Iliad…”11 This might not seem so obvious to the modern reader, but that is merely because he or she knows far more about the Iliad than about Roman ritual. Virgil assumes that the Roman reader, for whom the Aeneid was written, has a working knowledge of Roman ritual. Thus, Aeneas’ first sacrifice in 3.23-27 is meant to be understood with a well-known sacrificial taboo in mind, which Aeneas clearly breaks.

          Soon after landing in Thrace, Aeneas makes the awful mistake of slaughtering an un-castrated bull to Jupiter. The error is not immediately obvious from Virgil’s description: “Now, / making offerings to my mother, Dione’s daughter, / and to the gods who bless new ventures,/ I was poised, there on the beach, to slaughter a pure white bull / to Jove above all who rules the Powers on high.”12 Yet a few lines later, Aeneas is confronted by a terrible omen. He goes to collect some branches in order to make a canopy for the altar, but when he tries to pick them, dark blood oozes out of the stems. Ignoring both ritual principles and common sense, Aeneas prays for a less severe omen, trying a second and third time, finally being stopped by the voice of the murdered Polydorus. For the modern reader, the connection is not immediately apparent, but the Roman reader would have easily seen the two events as related. “In Roman religious practice, it was a piaculum13 to sacrifice a taurus (a full-grown uncastrated bull) to Jupiter,”14 and the subsequent omen indicating the gods’ displeasure points to a problem with the sacrifice.

          The modern reader may be surprised that the gods rejected Aeneas’ offering – after all, Aeneas was perhaps unfamiliar with the intricacies of sacrifice. However, for the Roman reader the futility of sacrifice was evident on a daily basis and an accepted fact of life, a theme that is central to the Aeneid.15 Indeed, Virgil points out the tragic nature of Aeneas’ attempts to please the gods from the very beginning of the poem: “Why was Juno outraged? / What could wound the Queen of the Gods with all her Power? / Why did she force a man, so famous for his devotion, / to brave such founds of hardship, bear such trials?”16

          In the Roman sacrificial system, Aeneas’ devotion should have been able to restore the pax deorum by performing the correct rituals. Juno’s unabated anger forces the reader to assume that he did not. In fact, Aeneas makes a number of other ritual errors during the course of the poem. Not all of the ritual violations require a special knowledge of Roman ritual practices. On a number of occasions they can be discerned from a close reading of the text. The instructions of a prophet are considered as having similar weight to traditional ritual stoicheia, and just as his attempt to sacrifice the bull is followed by a terrible portent, Aeneas’ failure to adhere to the instructions of a prophet is followed by a similar omen. In book six, the Sibyl gives Aeneas a specific set of ordered instructions to carry out before collecting the golden bough. He ultimately performs them in the wrong order, and possibly sacrifices the wrong animal. When he goes to pluck the bough, it “holds back,” which is the last thing it should do. The Sibyl had previously told Aeneas that, “Freely, easily, / all by itself it comes away if Fate calls you on. / If not, no strength within you can over overpower it, / no iron blade however hard can tear it off.”17 This indicates that Aeneas had certainly not satisfied the gods with his ritual performances.18                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

     The bough is interestingly identified as being “sacred to Juno of the dead,”19 connecting this event to the important theme of pleasing Juno, which is seen throughout the Aeneid. She represents all that opposes Aeneas and he must win her over in order to accomplish his destiny. Both her opening speech and Jupiter’s promise to her at the end of the epic show that her primary concern is her own honour.20 As Dyson observes, "[t]he marked position of these lines—the gods’ first and last speeches in the poem, with honorem / es [as] the last word of both—suggests that giving the proper offerings to Juno is a structuring principle of the poem and an essential component of Aeneas’ eventual victory." Juno is most concerned about her honour, which is gauged by how well and how often her suppliants sacrifice and offer prayers to her. Two prophets explicitly tell Aeneas to do this in order to obtain Juno’s favour, but his sacrifices seem to have no effect. On landing at Buthrotum, Helenus the prophet tells Aeneas to pray and sacrifice to Juno in order to gain her favour and arrive in Italy with the past behind them.21 On arrival, Virgil explicitly states that they burn offerings to Juno in the manner commanded by Helenus. However, the first thing they do is offer prayers to Pallas Athena.22 In the light of Helenus’ command, giving honour to Pallas by praying to her first is nothing short of an insult to Juno. Aeneas is clearly guilty of committing a piaculum by breaking the ritual stoicheia given to him by the prophet. In book eight of the Aeneid, Aeneas is guilty of making a similar error. Having finally arrived in Latium, he is told by the river Tiber to rise and pray to Juno and the Tiber.23 Aeneas does rise and pray, but he prays first to the Nymphs, then to the Tiber, and only then does he find a white sow, which he offers to Juno. His prayers are perfect in terms of ritual correctness, just in the wrong order, beginning with the wrong deity. Only much later does he sacrifice to Juno, committing a piaculum both in his delay and possibly in his choice of victim.24

          In the lines describing Aeneas’ sacrifice to Juno, Virgil calls him by his famous epithet “pious Aeneas,” presenting him as having fulfilled his ritual duty. However, here, as all too often in the Aeneid, Aeneas ignores prophetic instruction and violates ritual stoicheia, bringing the wrath of the gods on him and his people. As far as the gods are concerned, and especially Juno, pious Aeneas is guilty of a number of ritual violations, yet Aeneas is unable to rectify his errors. As Dyson observes, “Though no explicit statement ever appears in the Aeneid about the gods’ response to a given sacrifice, their continuing anger (as ancient commentators realised) is evident from the troubles that continue to plague Aeneas and his people.”25 This gives particular clarity to the tragic nature of his endless struggle to placate the gods and maintain the pax deorum. The sacrifices he makes are simply not good enough. Unfortunately for Aeneas, expiatory sacrifices are required in return and this theme forms an important background for the entire epic. Ultimately, as in the case of Palinurus, it is his men who pay the price for his ritual mistakes, yet even their sacrifices are not enough.26 The question of Aeneas’ piety is much more than a question of national duty versus personal desires, it also has an important religious aspect which must be considered for a fuller understanding of the Aeneid.

         Aeneas’ violations of ritual stoicheia also reveal much about the Roman understanding of sacrifice. For the Romans, sacrifice was a daily necessity, because man’s attempt to placate the gods was an unending struggle. From the Aeneid, it is clear that for the worshiper, sacrifice was “not only futile, but dangerous to those who performed it.”27 Neither animal sacrifices nor even human sacrifices could ever fully please the gods, even if performed correctly. In fact, sacrifice was entirely unable to please the gods, unless “the very fact of repetition, the unending necessity for further acts of expiation, is what please[d] them most.”28 Perhaps one reason for the success of Christianity in the Roman empire was precisely this understanding of sacrifice, with its ever-present need for another victim. Tragically, despite realising the centrality of sacrifice to human history, Virgil can see no further out of the proverbial cave of Roman religion.


1 Virgil, Aeneid, 1.6-7.
2 Julia T. Dyson, King of the Wood (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966), 11.
4 I am indebted to Dr. Leithart’s theology lectures for this definition.
5 This trajectory can be seen in the following events:
Book 3 – Aeneas consults the gods, but fails to understand the oracles dreams, and omens that foretell his newhome in Italy.
Book 4 – Aeneas doesn’t consult the gods; Jupiter has to send Mercury to tell Aeneas to leave Carthage.
Book 5 – Aeneas honours the death of his father with funeral games. His father appears to him in a dream andadvises the best course of action.
Book 6 – Aeneas, with the help of the Sibyl, visits the underworld, meets with the shade of his father who showshim a pageant of his future descendants.
6 I am deeply indebted to Rosenstock-Huessy for the ideas in this paragraph.
7 Julia T. Dyson, King of the Wood, 10-12 and Mortimer Chambers et al., The Western Experience (NewYork: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), 112.
8 Georges Dumézil, Archaic Roman Religion, trans. Philip Krapp, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 2:554-555.
9 Peter Leithart, Defending Constantine (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 16.
10 Julia T. Dyson, King of the Wood, 29.
11 Ibid., 13.
12 Aeneid, 3.23-27.
13 Piaculum here refers to sin of unintentionally violating sacrificial ritual rather than the expiatorysacrifice itself.
14 Julia T. Dyson, King of the Wood, 30.
15 Ibid., 14.
16 Aeneid, 1.9-12.
17 Aeneid, 6.174-177.
18 Julia T. Dyson, King of the Wood, 39-41.
19 Aeneid, 6.164.
20 Ibid., 1.24-49 and 12.838-40.
21 Aeneid, 3.433-40.
22 Ibid. 3.634-39.
23 Ibid. 8.62-66.
24 Ibid., 78-94 and Julia T. Dyson, King of the Wood, 47-48. According to Dyson, sows with their young were typically offered to Ceres or Tellus, rather than to Juno.
25 Julia T. Dyson, King of the Wood, 14.
26 Ibid., 13-14.
27 Ibid., 14.
28 Ibid., 233.



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The Western Experience. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974.

Dyson, Julia T. King of the Wood. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.

———. “Caesi Iuvenci and Pietas Impia in Virgil.” The Classical Journal 91, no. 3 (February 1996): 277-286.

Dumézil, Georges. Archaic Roman Religion. Translated by Philip Krapp. 2 vols.                                                Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Leithart, Peter. Defending Constantine. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010.

———. Heroes of the City of Man. Moscow, ID: 1999.

Rosenstock-Huessy, Eugen. Fruit of Lips. Edited by Marion D. Battles. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2008.

Rupke, Jorg, trans. A Companion to Roman Religion. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.