Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1556
Aeneas: leader of the fleet of exiled Trojans
Juno: queen of the gods, enemy of the Trojans
Aeolus: king of the winds
Neptune: god of the sea
Venus: goddess of love, Aeneas’ mother and patron
Jupiter: king of the gods
Achates: Aeneas’ constant companion
Dido: widowed queen of Carthage
Ilioneus: a Trojan elder
Ascanius Iulis: Aeneas’ son
Cupid: god of love
Juno, still furious at the Trojan refugees, has heard that their descendants are destined to destroy her favorite city, Carthage. She has kept the Trojans from Italy, their fated destination, for many years. Now she sets Aeolus to destroy the remnants of the Trojan fleet as they sail from Sicily.
The boats start to fall apart in the ensuing gale. Some are dashed against rocks, others are swept away from the fleet. In the midst of the storm, Aeneas regrets that he did not die defending Troy.
Neptune is angry at the winds for intruding on his kingdom and orders them to return to their home. After he calms the waters, the remaining ships quickly land on the shores of Libya. Aeneas kills seven deer for his comrades to eat, then gives an inspiring speech that belies his own worries. After eating, the men wonder what has become of their lost companions.
Meanwhile, Venus approaches Jupiter and asks what Aeneas has done to be kept away from Italy. She reminds him that he has sworn that the Trojans are to be the ancestors of the Romans, who will rule sea and land. Jupiter tells her not to fear. He prophesies that Aeneas will wage a great war in Italy, where he will find a home for his people. His son, Ascanius Iulis, will rule for 30 years, founding the city of Alba Longa. Three hundred years later, the twins Romulus and Remus will be born in Alba Longa. Romulus will found Rome, a city destined for greatness. Eventually, a Trojan Caesar named Julius, after Iulis, will extend Rome’s empire over the world, bringing peace with him.
Jupiter then sends Mercury to Carthage to make sure the Trojans are welcomed there. Dido, queen of Carthage, is inspired to treat the Trojans with kindness.
The next morning Aeneas, accompanied by Achates, reconnoiters the territory on which he and his fleet have landed. Venus appears to them in the guise of a maiden huntress. Realizing she is a goddess, Aeneas asks her what country he is in. She tells him he is within the territory of Queen Dido, who fled Phoenicia with the wealth of her murdered husband and founded a tiny kingdom in the land of the Libyans. She bids him to seek the palace of the queen, where he will find many of his lost companions. After briefly appearing as herself, Venus departs, leaving Aeneas and Achates veiled in a fog of invisibility.
From atop a hill, Aeneas and Achates are amazed by the sight of the construction of Carthage. They enter the city unseen and walk to the temple that Dido is constructing for Juno. Aeneas is saddened by the memories raised by the temple’s depictions of the Trojan War.
Queen Dido, goddess-like in her beauty, enters the shrine and takes her seat on a throne. She is approached by several of the Trojans that Aeneas had believed were lost at sea. Ilioneus approaches her and asks that the Trojans be given permission to land and repair their ships. Dido promises to help them, even offering to let the Trojans settle in Carthage, where she promises they will be well treated.
Suddenly the fog dissipates, and Aeneas reveals himself to the queen. Dido welcomes him and his companions and prepares a feast. Aeneas requests that his son, Ascanius, return from camp with presents for the queen.
Anxious to ensure Aeneas’ fortune, Venus sends her son Cupid to take Ascanius’ place. At the banquet, Cupid breathes a passion for Aeneas into Dido. Dido then invites Aeneas to tell the gathering about the fall of Troy and his wanderings in the seven years that have passed.
With its stirring opening, “I sing of arms and a man,” Virgil introduces the main elements of the Aeneid: the story of Aeneas, refugee from Troy and mythical ancestor of the Romans, whose fate pushes him toward Italy; and war, the force which caused Aeneas’ departure from Troy and which will later cause him to resettle his people in Italy. As a synecdoche, “arms” is used to mean “war,” but armor will also play a significant role in the book, especially the armor forged for Aeneas by Vulcan.
Virgil chooses to open the Aeneid in the middle of the action (“in media res”), as is traditional for an epic poem. This device plunges the reader into an exciting episode, drawing one into the story with little explanation. A Roman reader would naturally be familiar with Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, as well as the various legends of Aeneas. For this reason, Virgil has little need to introduce his characters or provide detailed explanations of such things as the origin of Juno’s wrath.
The story of the romance between Aeneas and Dido, however, is wholly of Virgil’s invention (although he borrows the tale from Appolonius’ Jason and Medea). Appropriately, Dido receives more of an introduction, with Venus telling her history and the narrative describing her appearance and personality. She is compared to the goddess Diana and is shown to be a kind and wise ruler.
Although she seems the perfect match for Aeneas, there is little doubt as to her fate. Jupiter tells Venus that Aeneas must leave Carthage in order to found Rome. The Roman reader, familiar with the history of the Punic Wars (264-146 B.C.), would also know that Rome and Carthage were destined to become enemies, so any romance between two characters representing these cities would be star-crossed from the start.
The inevitably poor outcome of Dido’s passion is also heavily foreshadowed in the text. For example, she is referred to as “luckless/Dido—doomed to face catastrophe” (993-994). The love Cupid gives her is “a poison” (962) which Venus wishes to use to “inflame the queen to madness” (921-922). More subtly, the inclusion of the Amazon queen Penthesilea among the scenes of the Trojan War depicted in Juno’s temple presages Dido’s fate. As explained by William S. Anderson, the queens initially contrast: Penthesilea rages while Dido is rational. But by the end of her affair, Dido will have lost all of her restraint, dying as tragically as did the Amazon queen.
One of the main themes that runs through the Aeneid is the contrast between uncontrolled rage and rational order. Juno is constantly depicted as furious and out of control. Her anger makes her irrational, and the source of her anger (a wounded ego) is petty. Propriety serves as no limit; she is willing to bribe others (as she offers Deiopeia to Aeolus), and even use the minions of hell to give the tiny remnants of the Trojans trouble. Her rage is depicted as a fire, a traditional source of destruction. Virgil uses the analogy frequently to show the ill effects of unrestrained feelings.
Order is shown in Book One in two important episodes with accompanying similes. First, the depiction of the construction of Carthage is the epitome of a well-run society. The arts of architecture and political discourse co-exist; those who do not contribute are harangued to do their fair share. Virgil compares Carthage’s residents to bees, the insects on which he lavished attention in the Georgics. Second, Neptune restores order to the sea after Juno’s chaotic disruption of his realm. Virgil uses a noteworthy simile here: Neptune is likened to “a man remarkable for righteousness and service” who calms a crowd “rocked by rebellion” (210-214). For the Roman reader who had lived through the decades of civil war that rocked the state before Augustus took control, the reference was obvious.
This book also introduces Virgil’s favorite epithet for Aeneas: “pious Aeneas.” Although Aeneas certainly worships the gods, “pious” has a different meaning in the Roman context than it does in English. For the Roman, a pious man was a man who did his duty. Not only did that mean doing his duty to the gods, which meant performing the proper sacrifices and ceremonies, but doing his duty for his country, which would most likely involve self-sacrifice of some sort. As Aeneas avoids taking the easy path in favor of following the instructions of the gods, his piety will become apparent.
Finally, it is interesting to note that the book opens with Aeneas in the depths of despair, his limbs “slack with chill.” This is his lowest point of the book, from which there is only room for improvement. Not only must he come to believe in the predictions for his future, as Jupiter reveals to Venus, he must stop longing for Troy.
How is it, exactly, that Aeneas evolves? There is much debate over the precise nature of his change. While some say he moves from sympathetic human to perfect (and boring) demi-god, others say he descends, becoming the embodiment of fury by the book’s close. It is up to each reader to weigh the evidence and decide which route Aeneas follows.
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