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The Aeneid

Virgil

Book I

Summary Book I

Venus advises Aeneas to go into the city and talk to the queen, who will welcome him. Aeneas and his friend Achates approach Carthage, shrouded in a cloud that Venus conjures to prevent them from being seen. On the outskirts of the city, they encounter a shrine to Juno and are amazed to behold a grand mural depicting the events of the Trojan War. Their astonishment increases when they arrive in Dido’s court to find many of their comrades who were lost and scattered in the storm asking Dido for aid in rebuilding their fleet. Dido gladly grants their request and says that she wishes she could meet their leader. Achates remarks that he and Aeneas were clearly told the truth regarding their warm welcome, and Aeneas steps forward out of the cloud. Dido is awestruck and delighted to see the famous hero. She invites the Trojan leaders to dine with her in her palace.

Venus worries that Juno will incite the Phoenicians against her son. She sends down another of her sons, Cupid, the god of love, who takes the form of Aeneas’s son, Ascanius. In this disguise, Cupid inflames the queen’s heart with passion for Aeneas. With love in her eyes, Dido begs Aeneas to tell the story of his adventures during the war and the seven years since he left Troy.

Analysis

Virgil adheres to the epic style that the ancient Greek poet Homer established by invoking the muse at the opening of his poem. A similar invocation begins both the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Homeric epics that are the models for Virgil’s epic, and the Aeneid picks up its subject matter where Homer left off. The events described in the Aeneid form a sequel to the Iliad and are contemporaneous with the wanderings of Ulysses in the Odyssey.

Although Virgil alludes to Homer’s epics and self-consciously emulates them, he also attempts to surpass and revise Homer, and the differences between the two authors’ epics are important markers of literary evolution. Whereas the Iliad and the Odyssey call the muse in the first line, Virgil begins the Aeneid with the words “I sing,” and waits a number of lines before making his invocation. It is as though Virgil is invoking the muse out of obligation rather than out of a genuine belief in divine inspiration. He emphasizes his presence as a narrator and becomes more than a medium through which the epic poem is channeled.

The hero at sea, buffeted by weather and impeded by unexpected encounters, is another recurring motif in epic poetry. According to the Roman worldview, which was derived from the Greeks, men’s actions and fortunes are compelled by a unitary fate, and the specific events of their lives are dictated by a host of competing supernatural forces. Aeneas, sailing from the ruins of Troy toward Italy, is not completely in control of his direction and progress. Fate has ordained, we learn, that Aeneas and his people will found a new race in Italy that will eventually become the Roman Empire. Jupiter ensures this outcome, and none of the gods can prevent it from happening. They can, however, affect the way in which it happens, and the rivalries and private loyalties of the meddling gods fuel the conflict in the poem.

The reasons for Juno’s hatred of the Trojans and her enduring antagonism would have been well known to Virgil’s Roman audience, which was familiar with the Greek tradition. Homer details the background of Juno’s resentment against Troy in the Iliad. The goddess of strife, Eris, threw a golden apple before the goddesses on Olympus and said it was a prize for the most beautiful among them. Three goddesses claimed it: Juno, Venus, and Minerva. They decided to have Paris, a Trojan and the most handsome of mortal men, settle the dispute. In secret, each goddess tried to bribe him, and in the end, he gave the apple to Venus because she offered the most tempting bribe: the fairest woman on Earth, Helen. That Helen was already married to a Greek king named Menelaus only engendered further conflict. When Paris took her away to Troy, her husband assembled the bravest warriors of the Argives (Greeks)—including his brother Agamemnon, Ulysses, and Achilles—and they set sail for Troy, initiating the Trojan War. They laid siege to the city for ten years, and, naturally, the goddesses took sides. Juno and Minerva aided the Greeks, and Venus helped the Trojans, to whom she had an added loyalty since the Trojan warrior Aeneas is her son.