- Aubree Heydrick, LAT 240 – Final Project
- What you asked for in prayer is here, to break through
- with the sword. Mars himself empowers your hands, men!
- Now let each remember his wife and home, now recall
- the great actions, the glories of our fathers. And let’s
- meet them in the waves, while they’re unsure and
- their first steps falter as they land. Fortune favors the brave.
- Turnus, 10.377-382
In the ancient Latin classic the Aeneid by Virgil, much can be said about the subject of pietas as a theme for interpreting and examining this legendary story of the great and pious warrior Aeneas as he travels to Italy and founds the city of Rome. Pietas is characterized as a selfless sense of obligation, making one honorable through duty to their gods and ancestors, their homeland, and their family. For Aeneas, these duties are present in the guidance he receives from the gods, going off to war and becoming the founder of Rome, and the special relationship he shares with this father, even from the underworld. This theme of pietas also plays a major role in the animated movie Mulan which was released in 1998 by Walt Disney Pictures. Though Mulan follows the story of a young girl who impersonates a man and takes her father’s place during a conscription to face the invasion of China by the Huns, the sense of duty represented in the movie is quite similar to the distinctive approach made by Virgil to this very same subject in the Aeneid.
Piety as an IdentityEdit
Virgil opens the Aeneid with stating, “Arma virumque cano, Trojae qui primus ab oris Italiam fato profugus Lavinaque venit litora.” This line immediately establishes Aeneas’ identity and what apparently characterizes him the best – his arms in war, his fate from the gods, and his responsibility as the founder of Rome. Virgil brings these characteristics together in the opening line of this epic not only to demonstrate the varying aspects of pietas, but also to show how they are direct representations of honor, and how they are specifically tailored to a vir as well. In Mulan, the song “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” exemplifies this idea perfectly in the way that the captain of the troop struggles to train the men to become viri. Considering another interesting aspect for interpretation, when Mulan cuts her hair to look more like a boy, it is the family’s sword that she uses, symbolizing how war and arms define a man in this context. These characteristics are also very representative of honor and this selfless sense of pietas. After accepting his conscription papers, Fa Zu, Mulan’s father, states that, “It is an honor to protect my country and my family.” While Mulan responds, “So you’ll die for honor,” her father explains, “I will die doing what’s right.” This conversation between Mulan and her father shows how one’s selfless duty to protect one’s family and country not only brings honor, but also defines what is “right”, just like in the Aeneid.
Likewise, in the song “Honor to Us All”, one woman proclaims, “We all must serve our Emperor who guards us from the Huns – a man by bearing arms, a girl by bearing sons.” This line also supports the idea that honor is at least partially characterized by arms and war, for a man clearly brings honor to his family and his country by serving the emperor and guarding the homeland from enemies. This is also very true for Trojan Aeneas, who is “pietate insignis et armis” (6.403). When Aeneas introduces himself to the huntress (who is really his mother Venus in disguise) he meets in the forest of Libya, he declares,
- Sum pius Aeneas, raptos qui ex hoste penatis
- classe veho mecum, fama super aethera notus.
- Italiam quaero patriam et genus ab Jove summo.
These words reveal how much Aeneas’ mission and responsibilities make up his identity, and are especially relevant to how Virgil demonstrates the weight behind the word “pius”. What makes him pius Aeneas, according to these lines? It’s his sense of duty, bound for a new patriam on which he may found Rome on strict orders from his fate told by the gods after he has carried his ships across the waters, having snatched them from the enemy. These duties establish Aeneas as a man through honor, just as in Mulan.
Duty towards the Gods/AncestorsEdit
As mentioned above, one’s duty towards the gods plays a significant role in demonstrating the true meaning of pietas in the Aeneid. In the poem, Aeneas is fated by the gods to travel across the treacherous seas to Italy so that he may find the Latium region and become the ancestor of the Romans. Aeneas’ entire story is dependent on these orders, and along the way he even endures various interferences from some of the heavenly divinities, including Juno, Neptune, Jupiter, Mercury, and his mother Venus. Keeping up with classical Greek and Roman tradition, Virgil depicts the gods as being rightfully worthy of all honor from dutiful mortals, and in return for their pietas they look after the mortals and guide them. In Book 1, Aeneas tells Dido,
- Di tibi, si qua pios respectant numina, si quid
- usquam justitia est et mens sibi conscia recti,
- praemia digna ferant.
This asserts that the gods will respect the virtuous if justice exists anywhere in the world (for the virtuous will have sufficiently honored them), but also only if the mind itself is conscious of “right”. This goes along with the statement made by Mulan’s father when he says that it is his duty to protect his family and his country because it is right. The god Apollo also had much to say to Iulus, Aeneas’ son as he looked down on Rome in Book 9: “Macte nova virtute, puer: sic itur ad astra, dis genite et geniture deos,” (9.641-2). Here, Iulus’ courage, along with his descendants and ancestors, are blessed by the god that by some fate he will rise to the stars and join the ranks of the divinities. By honoring the gods, mortals receive their protection and guidance, and this is also very clearly represented in Mulan.
In Mulan, the Fah family’s ancestors can be directly compared to the gods on Mt. Olympus in the Aeneid and Roman mythology in general. After Mulan departs for war with her father’s orders, the ancestors emerge onto the scene as awakened “spirits” of sorts to help guide Mulan and bring her home. These ancestors appear to guide and protect her because the Fah family is dutiful and honors them – in the beginning of the movie Mulan’s father is seen praying to the ancestors at dawn, while Mulan prays in the family temple before sneaking off to war during the night. The ancestors watch out for Mulan and guide her just like the gods oversee Aeneas’ journey to Italy.
One quirky aspect that I noticed, on the other hand, was that the “great” ancestor who seemed to be the oldest and most distinguished also bore a similar resemblance to Jupiter in Roman mythology (the equivalent to the Greek god Zeus). Not only did he have long, white flowing hair and a staff like Jupiter is often depicted in Roman images, but he also assumed the role of the “father figure” for the ancestors – Jupiter himself was the father of gods. The small dragon who is sent by the ancestors to accompany Mulan on her journey, Mushu, also struck me as a version of Mercury, a messenger god sent by other gods in the Aeneid. This similarity helped to confirm in my mind that the ancestors in Mulan were playing the role of the gods in ancient myth, providing guidance and protection to those who honor them through their selfless sense of duty.
Duty towards One’s HomelandEdit
At its core, the Aeneid is an epic poem that depicts a war story. This duty to protect one’s homeland, including going to war to defend it, is the second aspect in our examination of pietas. Although Aeneas makes his journey to Italy because it is decreed by fate, he is also obligated to bear arms because it is his duty to his homeland and his people. Virgil makes this clear throughout all the books in the poem, and also through many different characters. But the most effective lines, I found, came from Hector in Book 2 as everyone is fleeing Troy. Hector brings a romantic feel to war as he describes gathering his men for battle as Troy is being burnt to the ground:
- Arma amens capio; nec sat rationis in armis,
- sed glomerare manum bello at concurrere in arcem
- cum sociis ardent animi; furor iraque mentem
- praecipitat, pulchrumque mori succurrit in armis.
This idea, that it would be beautiful to die fighting in arms, brings a deeper sense to war that mimics one’s duty to protecting the homeland. Virgil’s depiction of honor is romanticized in this way to bring a new dimension to a warrior’s selfless sense of duty to protect his country and his people.
This aspect of pietas is obviously present in Mulan, as it is a story about a young girl who imitates a boy and goes to war for her family, but this duty to war is also romanticized in much the same way. The captain of Mulan’s rank, Lee Shang, after finding that his father, the General, has been killed just as they come under attack by the Huns declares, “Prepare to fight. If we die, we die with honor.” Once again this idea of dying in battle becomes romanticized by the fact that death is accompanied by honor, and this is essential in being truly “pius”. At the same time, a different romantic aspect of war appears in the song “A Girl Worth Fighting For” when the men in Mulan’s troop dream of coming back from war as heroes to find a woman waiting for them with her love. One could argue that in the Aeneid this hope is present between Aeneas and Dido. Aeneas is unable to stay with Dido because of his duty to the gods in much the same way that the men in Mulan’s rank or bound to their duty in war.
Duty towards One’s FamilyEdit
The last factor that governs pietas in the Aeneid is one’s duty to their family, especially their father. Pius holds a strong connotation of devotion to family, in particular one’s parents, in ancient Latin literature. The relationship between Aeneas and his father Anchises is a very special one in the Aeneid – in Book 6 Aeneas, with the guidance of the Sibyl, descends into the underworld where he is able to speak to the spirit of his father who has recently died in Sicily. In the underworld, Anchises asks,
- Venisti tandem, tuaque exspectata parenti
- vicit iter durum pietas? Datur ora tueri,
- nate, tua et notas audire et reddere voces?
- Sic equidem ducebam animo rebarque futurum
- Tempora dinumerans, nec me mea cura fefellit.
Indeed, the pietas that Anchises counted on from his son withstood the harsh journeys Aeneas faced as he has returned to his father, even in the underworld. This devotion that Aeneas shows for his father represents the cornerstone of one’s selfless duty to family, as Virgil has demonstrated time and time again throughout the epic. In fact, when Aeneas learns of his fate to leave Troy and sail to Italy, his father is one of the very first people he seeks an opinion from,
- Postquam pavor ossa reliquit,
- delectos populi ad procures primumque parentem
- monstra deum refero, et quae sit sententia posco.
Virgil uses this relationship between Aeneas and Anchises to demonstrate exactly the meaning behind the selfless duty towards one family. Aeneas is devoted to his father and is therefore honoring him in every way possible, by going to war in the name of his family and also seeking his advice in guidance in unclear times.
For Mulan, family honor is an essential part of the story. Mulan sneaks off in the night to fight on behalf of her father because she wants to take part in upholding her family’s honor; but she also takes charge to protect her father, who is weak and unfit for war. The relationship between Mulan and her father is also a very special one, and as in the Aeneid, the honor she brings to her family comes from her duty to her country and her need to be dutiful to her parents. On the other hand, at the beginning of the movie Mulan is expected to bring her family honor in a totally different context – through marriage. By striking a good match for a marriage, Mulan is expected fulfill her duty to her parents by bringing great honor to her family, the emperor, and her ancestors. This, she recites from the Final Admonition, “shall bring you honor and glory”.