I 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.
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