This essay attempts a reevaluation of the use of Greek tragedy in Vergil's Aeneid, drawing on recent advances in the study of literary allusion and on current approaches to Greek drama which emphasize the importance of social context. I argue that extensive allusions to the figure of Ajax in the Aeneid serve as a subtext for the construction of the personae of Dido and Turnus. The allusive presence of Ajax attests to the existence of a tragic register in the epic, which intersects with and complicates the multiple allusive registers within the poem. Moreover, I propose that a detailed examination of Vergil's manipulation of tragedy's articulation of socio-political and ideological problems may in turn illuminate the Aeneid as a national epic and its much-contested relationship with Augustan ideology.
More specifically, I argue that issues of identity and moral action explored in Sophocles' Ajax are crucial in the cases of Dido and Turnus, who similarly find themselves in conflict with and unable to adapt to the new social and political structure of Aeneas' new order. Like Ajax, Dido and Turnus define themselves through constant reference to their relationship with their people. All three, however, engage in action which pits them against the interests of their communities and which results in their complete isolation. Unable to adjust their behavioral code to ensure their survival, Dido and Turnus embody a heroic ideal which, though laudable, can have no place in Aeneas' Roman future. Vergil thus mobilizes a tragic allusive register in order to illustrate the tension between the celebration of this ideal and the realization that social change has rendered it obsolete. At the same time, the loss of the ideals that Dido and Turnus represent necessitates the articulation of a comparable, if not superior, ethical code which Aeneas is called on to embody. Allusive evidence linking Aeneas to the tragic Ajax, however, seems to indicate Aeneas' failure to emerge as a superior moral force in the poem.
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