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The Aeneid | Study Guide


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Book 3

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Book 3 of Virgil's epic poem The Aeneid.

The Aeneid | Book 3 | Summary



Aeneas and other survivors of Troy build ships and sail north to Thrace, where they try to build a new city. However, a terrible omen—the blood of a Trojan prince killed by the treacherous Thracian king—prompts them to move on. They sail south to Delos, where the god Apollo sends Aeneas a prophecy that he will settle in the land of his ancient ancestor. Recalling that the Trojan forefather Teucer came from the island of Crete, they sail there and begin to build a city. However, a plague strikes people and crops, signaling that Crete is not their new home. In a dream the household gods tell Aeneas he has misinterpreted Apollo's prophecy: he is fated to build in his forefather Dardanus's land of Italy.

The Trojans continue on, sailing northwest around Greece. After a storm they land on small islands called the Strophades. After they kill animals they find there, they are attacked by the Harpies: half-woman, half-bird monsters. The lead Harpy, Celaeno, issues a prophecy and curse: the Trojans will not find their home until great hunger has made them eat their platters. They sail north to Actium, where they celebrate and make offerings to Jupiter. They reach the town of Buthrotum and are overjoyed to learn that the Trojan prince Helenus is now king and has married his brother Hector's widow, Andromache. They are making Buthrotum into a little Troy. The reunited Trojans celebrate, and Apollo speaks through Helenus, reassuring Aeneas he will safely reach Italy after a long journey. He instructs Aeneas to make a sacrifice to appease Juno and to consult the Sibyl (an oracle) at Cumae. A white pig with 30 piglets will mark the site of Aeneas's new city.

Aeneas makes offerings to Juno immediately upon reaching Italy. The fleet sails on, heading south around Sicily to avoid the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis. A calm wind forces them to land near Mt. Etna, home of the giant one-eyed Cyclops. A survivor from Ulysses's encounter with the Cyclops, Polyphemus warns them of the danger, and they sail away just in time. They arrive in Drepanum, home of the friendly King Acestes, where Anchises dies. When they sail again, they are driven to Carthage by Juno's storm, ending Aeneas's tale of their journey.


Aeneas's stop at Actium seems a minor incident to modern readers—it doesn't advance his progress toward his destiny—but for Romans it would have immediately brought to mind the recent battle in which Octavian (soon to be Caesar Augustus) defeated Mark Antony, ending nearly a century of civil wars. The shield that Aeneas attaches to the temple doors belonged to Abas, an ancient king of the Greek city of Argos, representing Rome's destiny to eventually conquer Greece and beyond.

Aeneas's journey in Book 3 is heavy with prophecies; he gets a new one at nearly every stop. Prophecies can be misinterpreted, such as Apollo's at Delos, which initially leads the Trojans to build a city in the wrong place. If they had been paying attention, Apollo's naming them "Sons of Dardanus" should have told them which ancestor he meant. Prophecies can also be forgotten. Aeneas seems to forget the prediction of Creusa's ghost that Aeneas will settle in Hesperia (Italy) after long wanderings—he goes no farther than the neighboring land mass before trying to build a new city (Aenus). Likewise, Anchises has forgotten a prophecy made before the fall of Troy by Cassandra, daughter of King Priam. She is a minor player in The Iliad and The Odyssey, but later works, such as Aeschylus's play Agamemnon, explain that, as punishment for rejecting Apollo's amorous advances, she was cursed to accurately tell the future but to never be believed.

In his prophecy at Buthrotum, Helenus tells Aeneas he must try to appease Juno with prayers and sacrifices. "Only then can you leave Sicilian shores at last." Aeneas makes a sacrifice to Juno when he reaches Italy, but it seems he neglects to do so before leaving Sicily, since an angry Juno sends the storm that drives the fleet to Carthage. The prophecy of the Harpy Celaeno sounds dire, but Helenus's prophecy assures Aeneas that it will be nothing to fear.

Aeneas's religious piety is well represented on his journey, with a variety of sacrifices, offerings, and prayers to appeal to or give thanks to the gods, or simply to celebrate.

Book 3 features the most direct reference to Homer's epics in The Aeneid, when Aeneas encounters a Greek left behind after Ulysses's confrontation with the Cyclops Polyphemus. The man's story includes a number of details familiar from The Odyssey, including drilling out the giant's eye, refreshed by Virgil's vividness of description. Although the two epics originated hundreds of years apart in different cultures, Aeneas and Ulysses (Odysseus) are wandering at the same time. Ulysses's group left three months before Aeneas encounters the Cyclops. The Greek's story also highlights the characterization of Ulysses. His cleverness is celebrated in The Odyssey, but in The Aeneid, told from the other side of the conflict, he is deceitful and self-serving: "always true to himself when it's life-or-death."

As in later battle scenes, Virgil's depiction of violence is graphic and brutal, but it doesn't solely celebrate the protagonists. After vividly describing the horror of Polyphemus killing and eating Ulysses's men, Virgil shows sympathy for the monster: "But what a price he paid!" His sheep are "his sole pleasure,/his only solace in pain."

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