Aeneas does not know the meaning of his father’s mysterious prediction, but the next day he describes it to Acestes, who consents to host those who do not wish to continue to Italy after the Trojan fleet departs. Venus, fearing more tricks from Juno, worries about the group’s safety at sea. She pleads with Neptune to let Aeneas reach Italy without harm. Neptune agrees to allow them safe passage across the waters, demanding, however, that one of the crew perish on the voyage, as a sort of sacrifice for the others. On the voyage, Palinurus, the lead captain of Aeneas’s fleet, falls asleep at the helm and falls into the sea.
Neptune’s last strike at Palinurus seems a ridiculous impulse of divine vanity: Neptune harbors no explicit anger against the Trojans and has no interest in delaying their destiny, yet he requires the death of Palinurus as a price for safe passage. It is unclear why Neptune needs to be pacified at all—he is calm and gentle in his talk with Venus. They conduct their dealings with the tone of a friendly business transaction, and the bloodshed incurred seems gratuitous and irrational, demonstrating yet again how the whims of the gods have grave consequences for mortal affairs.
The games on the shores of Eryx serve as a diversion both for us and for Aeneas and his crew. After four books of foul weather, destruction, suffering, and suicide, sport provides a lighthearted interlude. The games provide comic moments, as when Gyas gets stuck in the shoals and tosses his helmsman overboard, or when Nisus, in order to throw the race for his friend, Euryalus, slips on blood during the footrace, putting himself in the path of Salius. Such moments of lightness are rare in the Aeneid; Virgil fairly consistently maintains a solemn tone. In addition to providing comic relief, these sequences allow Virgil to display his poetic skill in creating excitement and suspense. He uses interjections and imperatives to draw us into the races:
But close upon him, look,
Diores in his flight matched stride for stride,
Nearing his shoulder. (V.412–414)
Virgil does not often break from the formal, epic style associated with the genre of tragedy, but this style does not always encompass the range of emotions that he wishes to portray. Above all, Virgil excels at representing universal passions, and here he portrays the passion for sport and physical competition. Any athlete can relate to the comic frustration of the losers, the triumphant gloating of the winners, the fervent displays of masculinity, and the irreverent enthusiasm of the spectators. The games matter little to the plot as a whole, but they show a more lighthearted facet of Virgil’s artistry—one that is welcome after Dido’s suicide, one of the epic’s darkest passages.
The goddesses Juno and Venus continue their quarrel by meddling further in the journey of the weary Trojans. The gods, not the hero, drive the plot—Aeneas has been reduced to a responsive role. A low point in terms of morale occurs when, to stop the burning of his fleet, Aeneas begs Jupiter to help him or end his life. Virgil’s hero has reached the limit of psychological suffering in the face of divine mistreatment that he perceives to be arbitrary. That Aeneas goes so far as to consider ignoring the fates and settling in Sicily simply to end this weary journey indicates how tired and perhaps powerless he feels. But the importance of stoic persistence is one of the Aeneid’s messages, and Aeneas decides to go on, his strength renewed by the visit of Anchises’s spirit.