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The Aeneid | Book 1 | Summary

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Summary

"Wars and a man I sing—an exile driven on by Fate." With this iconic first line, Virgil begins to lay out the story of Aeneas, who is destined to become the founder of Rome. Along the way he will face great battles and challenges created by the angry Juno, queen of the gods. She wants Carthage to rule the world, but the Fates have decreed that Rome will defeat her beloved city. Juno still resents the "Judgement of Paris, the unjust slight to her beauty," and she will interfere with Aeneas's destiny however she can.

Juno bribes Aeolus, king of the winds, to sink the Trojan fleet as it leaves Sicily, but the sea god Neptune calms the seas and rescues the ships. Aeneas and seven ships land in a natural harbor on the Libyan coast, but they fear the other ships are lost. In the sky Aeneas's mother, the love goddess Venus, worries his fate has changed, but Jupiter foretells his future: Aeneas will win a long war and will rule for three years. But his son, Ascanius, will rule for 30 years. Their descendants will rule until Romulus founds Rome. On Romans, Jupiter has "set no limits, space or time:/I have granted them ... empire without end."

Exploring the area where they have landed, Aeneas and his faithful friend Achates meet Venus in disguise. She tells them of Carthage and Dido, its widowed queen, and reveals that their missing ships are there. Hidden in Venus's mist, the men enter Carthage unseen, and they admire the bustling city. They make their way to the temple of Juno, where Aeneas feels welcomed by scenes of the Trojan War. Still hidden, Aeneas and Achates watch Dido warmly welcome the other half of their fleet. The mist dissipates, and Aeneas is revealed. Dido, familiar with his story, admires and honors him.

Venus, worried that Juno will cause trouble, hatches a plan to protect Aeneas. She bids Cupid to make Dido fall in love with Aeneas. Pretending to be Aeneas's son, Ascanius, Cupid hugs and charms Dido, making her forget her dead husband, Sychaeus, whom she loved deeply. Unaware of the "plague/about to strike" her, Dido begs Aeneas for the story of his travels.

Analysis

Virgil's Roman epic builds off of, and pays homage to, Homer's Greek Iliad and Odyssey. The Iliad follows the warrior Achilles in the Trojan War, and The Odyssey tells of the struggles of Odysseus (Ulysses in The Aeneid) to get home from the war. The first half of The Aeneid is a travel epic, like The Odyssey, and the second half is a war epic, like The Iliad. Virgil sets The Aeneid after the Trojan War, following the Trojan hero Aeneas (who also appears in The Iliad) and his fellow refugees from Troy. Juno's anger is also related to the war. The "Judgement of Paris, the unjust slight to her beauty," refers to a contest in which Paris, a Trojan prince, picked Venus as the most beautiful goddess. She rewarded him with the love of Helen, already married to Menelaus of Greece, and they ran off to Troy. In the resulting war, resentful Juno sides with the Greeks.

Like Homer's epics The Aeneid begins in medias res, Latin for "in the midst of things." Aeneas and his group have been traveling for seven years when the first plot event in Book 1, Juno's storm, occurs. Their earlier travels are told through Aeneas's recollections in Books 2 and 3.

As the author of The Aeneid, Virgil occasionally presents himself as the narrator in the first person, but for the most part he employs the voice of an omniscient third-person narrator. Of course, Virgil is human and not actually all-knowing, but he invokes the help of the Muses, goddesses of poetry and history. Ancient Romans would have seen this immortal inspiration as lending a tone of historical authority to the story.

Virgil's famous first line, "Wars and a man I sing—an exile driven on by Fate," provides the broad strokes of the story he is about to tell, as well as the central theme, the inevitability of Fate. As Jupiter explains, Aeneas's fate is set, and all the events he describes will come to pass. However, exactly how they happen can be influenced. Aeneas's fate is tied to the destiny of Rome. Aeneas's greatness foreshadows the power and glory of Rome, which Jupiter grants "empire without end." The closing of the Gates of War and chaining of the "Frenzy/of civil strife" represents the end of Rome's recent civil wars and Virgil's prediction of long-lasting peace under Caesar Augustus.

Interactions between Juno, Neptune, Jupiter, and Venus illustrate their natures and will: they are passionate and temperamental, and mortals are helpless against their power. However, even the gods cannot change Fate. Their actions balance each other to achieve the destiny that the three Fates have spun in the thread of Aeneas's life. Angry Juno tries to fight Fate, sending a storm to destroy Aeneas, but Neptune rescues him. To protect her son, Venus starts a passionate fire of love in Dido that will ultimately destroy her. Jupiter manages and balances the other gods, ensuring that the will of the Fates is carried out.

"I am Aeneas, duty bound." So the hero introduces himself to his mother in disguise. He is described throughout the poem as "pious," from the Latin pius, which has a somewhat broader meaning than in English. It means dutifully honoring and respecting not only the gods but also family and country.

Aeneas is presented as a paragon of Roman virtue, but also as having all-too-human weaknesses. Despite knowing that his fate lies in Italy, Aeneas wishes to die during the terrible storm, and part of him wants to stay in Carthage. This is an example of an important distinction Virgil makes in his story to reveal an internal conflict going on in the hero. The literary tactic has the effect of engaging empathy in the reader, who also has experienced similar doubts. As an example to Romans, this struggle exists to inspire the reader.

Virgil's mastery of language is evident in the vivid imagery of the terror of the storm, the sanctuary of the protected harbor, and the activity of Carthage. Paying homage to Homer, Virgil uses epic similes, extended comparisons of one thing to another using like or as (usually related to nature), to create mental pictures that still pop off the page two millennia after they were written. In a famous simile, he compares the workers building Carthage to a beehive that "seethes with life."

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