Furor is the rage in the blood that turns justice into revenge and war into slaughter. Furor is the all-consuming lust that privileges private obsession over public service. Furor is the unadulterated avarice that shatters oaths and smashes kingdoms. It is the incarnate enemy of civilization; where it reigns, there can only be dissolution.

Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with us who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?

No doubt you’ve been taught that we Romans were a cold-hearted race who cared little for passion and romance. My friends, we were people just like you are. We loved and we lost, we dreamed and we prayed, we laughed and we wept. We were not made of stone; our hearts were just as accessible to strong emotions as your own.

We simply chose not to let passion get the upper hand. We understood how destructive it can be. Like a stormy sea or a raging fire, passion sweeps away all that stands in its path. It cannot be stopped once it begins to devour.

In my previous letter, I wrote to you of pietas, of that duty to gods, ancestors, state, and family that brings order out of chaos. More often than not, it is passion uncontrolled that tears down that order and restores the primal chaos: or, to speak more broadly, the eternal nemesis of pietas is furor.

Furor is the rage in the blood that turns justice into revenge and war into slaughter. Furor is the all-consuming lust that privileges private obsession over public service. Furor is the unadulterated avarice that shatters oaths and smashes kingdoms. It is the incarnate enemy of civilization; where it reigns, there can only be dissolution.

Do not condemn us then for being perpetually on our guard against passions that would threaten to snare us in the web of furor. We know the danger of furor and where it can lead. The people of your generation seem ever to dance on the line that separates furor from pietas. We always try to stay as far away from the line as we can.

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Furor brings war and often something far worse. I mean civil war: not the defending of oneself from foreign enemies who threaten law, peace, and order, but the shedding of blood that was once joined in a formal pact of friendship and mutual support. To war with members of one’s own family is a terrible thing, but it is just as terrible when citizens turn against each other and follow the path of furor.

Such was the case when my Aeneas landed in Italy so many centuries ago. Fate, destiny, and the gods had all paved the way for Aeneas to marry Lavinia, the daughter of King Latinus, who controlled the area of Italy that would one day be the heart of Rome. Through that marriage, Trojan and Italian would have joined and become one people. But Latinus’s wife, Amata, would not heed the pact established between her husband and Aeneas. Lavinia had already been promised to the Italian Turnus, and Amata refused to accept Aeneas as her son-in-law.

Latinus held true to pietas and did all he could to marry Aeneas to Lavinia, but the furor of Amata and Turnus swept away his devotion to duty and led to civil war. If truth be told, the situation was worse than that. Amata and Turnus had themselves been driven mad by the greater divine furor of Juno, wife of Jupiter, who hated Aeneas and his fellow Trojans. In order to drive Amata and Turnus into the bloody arms of furor, Juno called up from beneath the earth the very embodiment of wrath, rage, and revenge: a Fury.

I know that your age no longer believes in the Furies, but their influence still runs rampant in your more enlightened world. Whenever we give way to furor, we unleash something within us that is dark, primal, and chthonic. The forces that would destroy us, that would tear down all that we have built, are ever at our elbow. If we give them a foothold in our heart, they will possess us and turn us into slaves.

Even my noble Aeneas was not immune from the ravages of furor. When Turnus killed Pallas, whose father, King Evander, had put him under Aeneas’s special care and protection, Aeneas gave way to an Achilles-like rage. Blaming himself for the death of Pallas, and thus for violating his solemn pledge to Evander, Aeneas allowed his broken pietas to be replaced with a mounting furor. In the end, he failed to follow the advice his father had given him to spare the conquered, and killed the defenseless suppliant Turnus.

If even Aeneas himself can succumb to furor, then we must all beware of our own propensity to give in to our darker nature.

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But what of Queen Dido of Carthage?

When my Aeneas and his crew ran aground on Carthage, Dido took them in and treated them with hospitality. Soon, a burning love rose up between Aeneas and Dido, and they swore between them to live as man and wife.

But that was not the will of Jupiter. Aeneas was not to remain in Carthage but to continue on to Italy and lay the foundations for what would become the Roman Empire. Accordingly, Jupiter sent Mercury to rebuke Aeneas and command him to leave his beloved Dido and set sail for the Italian coast. Aeneas obeyed, leaving the distraught Dido to curse him and his descendants and to take her own life in a fit of furor.

Was Aeneas right or wrong to abandon the woman he had pledged his love to? Perhaps you who live in the twenty-first century will argue that Aeneas was wrong, that he should have chosen personal happiness with Dido over his duty to Rome. But if he had made that choice, he would not have been Aeneas, would not have been the man the gods chose to establish a civilization dedicated to the spread of pietas and the defeat of furor.

Still, you are correct if you argue that Aeneas was too cold and calculating in his departure from Dido. Had he allowed himself to share in her grief and emotion, had he comforted her and softened his extreme pietas with words of kindness and tears of sorrow, Dido might not have reacted with such irrational rage. Instead, by repressing his own feelings of love and shielding himself behind an emotionless pietas, Aeneas stoked the fires of Dido’s furor a hundredfold.

The best defense against furor, dear friends of the future, is not to eliminate all passion, but to purge and purify it and then join it to a compassionate and human form of pietas.

—Virgil

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Death of Dido” (1781) by Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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