At what point is the Aeneid at the start of the epic?

The Aeneid begins in medias res, that is, in the middle of the story. Aeneas is telling the story of his journeys to Queen Dido, and begins the tale with a supplication to the muses. 

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In the Aeneid, the hero of the Trojan War embarks on a seven-year sea voyage in search of a new city, which is eventually Rome. The poem begins with an expected invocation to the Muses that Virgil uses to outline the theme of the story and give his readers...

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In the Aeneid, the hero of the Trojan War embarks on a seven-year sea voyage in search of a new city, which is eventually Rome. The poem begins with an expected invocation to the Muses that Virgil uses to outline the theme of the story and give his readers a picture of coming events:

“Arms, and the man I sing, who, forc’d by fate,
And haughty Juno’s unrelenting hate,
Expell’d and exil’d, left the Trojan shore.
Long labours, both by sea and land, he bore,
And in the doubtful war, before he won
The Latian realm, and built the destin’d town;
His banish’d gods restor’d to rites divine,
And settled sure succession in his line,
From whence the race of Alban fathers come,
And the long glories of majestic Rome.
O Muse! the causes and the crimes relate;
What goddess was provok’d, and whence her hate;
For what offence the Queen of Heav’n began
To persecute so brave, so just a man;
Involv’d his anxious life in endless cares,
Expos’d to wants, and hurried into wars!
Can heav’nly minds such high resentment show,
Or exercise their spite in human woe?”

Following the invocation, Virgil sets the background of the tale, shows the intervention by the gods, relates prophecies to be fulfilled, and introduces main characters. Aeneas and his Trojan Fleet are forced to wander for many years and through many trials and tribulations. Finally, the call to adventure arrives. The author provides flashbacks to events leading up to the moment when Aeneas is shipwrecked near Carthage. It is at this point the Aeneid begins as an epic journey.

An epic poem is written in a grandiose style containing long verse narrative. They usually focus on a heroic figure with unusual bravery and courage. The epic or heroic poem generally relates to a specific society. Traditional epics are derived from oral poems passed down through generations. Literary epics, like Virgil’s Aeneid, are constructed in the same way as traditional forms, but are written by individual authors.

Literary epics contain certain common features. For example, the heroic figure about which the poem is written is usually a figure of great importance. The hero demonstrates extraordinary valor in battles set on a large scale. Often, gods and other supernatural beings play an active role in the action of the story.

Epic poetry does adhere to certain conventions that identify the works in contrast to other poetic writings. First, narrators begin by stating the purpose or theme of the hero’s adventure and by invoking a Muse, god, or spirit to give inspiration to the hero. Second, the story begins in the middle of the action, which is known as in medias res or “in the middle of things” in Latin. Third, the main characters are usually formally introduced.

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When The Aeneid begins, Aeneas and the other Trojans have been sailing the high seas for many years since the fall of Troy. Since escaping from the burning city, these refugees have embarked upon a plan to found a new city called Lavinium, which will one day become Rome.

Unfortunately, the Trojans are thwarted in their endeavors by the goddess Juno, who does everything she can to make life difficult for them. Juno is motivated by hatred towards the Trojans. This is largely because one of their number, Prince Paris, did not award her the golden apple for her beauty, choosing a mere mortal, Helen, instead. For good measure, Juno also hates the Trojans because one of their ancestors, Dardanus, was the son of Jupiter, Juno's husband, and Electra, a rival of Juno for Jupiter's affections.

Juno, then, does her best to ensure that the Trojans will never found the city that will one day become Rome. To this end, she asks the wind god Aeolus to raise a fearsome storm that will destroy the entire Trojan fleet. Thankfully, the sea god Neptune restores calm to the water and Aeneas and the other survivors are able to rest on dry land.

Stranded on Carthage, Aeneas and his men are received favorably by Queen Dido. At a banquet thrown in his honor, Aeneas begins to tell the tale of the fall of Troy. He describes how it led to the Trojans wandering the high seas for so many years.

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Like Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil begins the Aeneid with his story in medias res ("in the middle of things"). Homer's Iliad depicts actions in the tenth and final year of the war; his Odyssey starts ten years after the Trojan War has ended and later flashes back to the time when Odysseus left Troy. Similarly, when Virgil's Aeneid begins, we find Aeneas sailing upon the Mediterranean Sea. It is several years since the fall of Troy. By the time Aeneid 1 ends, Aeneas will be shipwrecked, but safe in northern Africa. In Aeneid 2 and 3, the title character will tell the story of Troy's fall and his various wanderings after the fall of Troy and before he washed ashore in Troy.

O queen, you command me to renew unspeakable grief,

how the Greeks destroyed the riches of Troy,

and the sorrowful kingdom, miseries I saw myself,

and in which I played a great part.

(Aeneid 2; A.S. Kline translation)

Thus, just as Odysseus, in Odyssey 9-12, told the Phaeacians about his adventures, in Aeneid 2-3, Aeneas provides us with a flashback of what he has been doing for the past several years.

 

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