sing of warfare and a man at war.
From the sea-coast of Troy in early days
He came to Italy by destiny,
To our Lavinian western shore,
A fugitive, this captain, buffeted
. . .
Till he could found a city and bring home
His gods to Laetium, land of the Latin race,
The Alban lords, and the high walls of Rome.
Tell me the causes now, O Muse, how galled
. . .
From her old wound, the queen of gods compelled him—
. . .
To undergo so many perilous days
And enter on so many trials. Can anger
Black as this prey on the minds of heaven?
With these opening lines of the Aeneid, Virgil
enters the epic tradition in the shadow of Homer, author of the Iliad, an
epic of the Trojan War, and the Odyssey, an epic
of the Greek hero Ulysses’ wanderings homeward from Troy. By naming
his subjects as “warfare and a man,” Virgil establishes himself
as an heir to the themes of both Homeric epics. The man, Aeneas,
spends the first half of the epic wandering in search of a new home
and the second half at war fighting to establish this homeland.
Lines 2 through 4 summarize Aeneas’s
first mission in the epic, to emigrate from Troy to Italy, as a fate
already accomplished. We know from Virgil’s use of the past tense
that what he presents is history, that the end is certain, and that the
epic will be an exercise in poetic description of historical events. In
the phrase “our Lavinian . . . shore,” Virgil connects his audience, his
Roman contemporaries, to Aeneas, the hero of “early days.”
Even though we do not learn Aeneas’s name in these lines,
we learn much about him. The fact that Aeneas’s name is withheld
for so long—until line 131—emphasizes
Aeneas’s lack of importance as an individual; his contribution to
the future defines him. He is a “fugitive” and a “captain” and therefore
a leader of men. That he bears responsibility to “bring home / His
gods” introduces the concept of Aeneas’s piety through his duty
to the hearth gods of Troy. Most important, we learn that Aeneas
is “a man apart, devoted to his mission.” Aeneas’s detachment from
temporal and emotional concerns and his focus on the mission of
founding Rome, to which Virgil alludes in the image of walls in
line 12, increase as the epic progresses.
In this opening passage, Virgil mentions the divine obstacle
that will plague Aeneas throughout his quest: the “sleepless rage”
of the “queen of gods,” Juno. Aeneas will suffer in the face of
storms at sea and, later, a war on land, and Virgil attributes both
these impediments to Juno’s cruelty. In line 13,
the poet asks the muse to explain the causes of Juno’s ire. The
invocation of a muse is the traditional opening line to an epic
in the classical tradition beginning with Homer. Virgil delays his
invocation of the muse by a dozen lines, first summarizing what
might be considered a matter of mortal history, and then inquiring
the muse of the matter’s divine causes.
Virgil’s question, “Can anger / Black as this prey on
the minds of heaven?” brings up the ancients’ relationship to the
gods. Within their polytheistic religious system, the Greeks and
Romans reckoned the will of the gods to be the cause of all events
on Earth. Instead of attributing forces of good and evil to the
gods, as later religions did, the Greeks and Romans believed the
gods to be motivated by emotions recognizable to humans—jealousy,
vanity, pride, generosity, and loyalty, for example. The primary
conflict in the Aeneid is Juno’s vindictive anger
against the forces of fate, which have ordained Aeneas’s mission
to bring Troy to Italy, enabling the foundation of Rome.