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The Aeneid | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


What is the effect of starting The Aeneid in medias res, or in the middle of the story?

Beginning The Aeneid in medias res allows Virgil to begin the story by focusing on its central conflict: Juno's anger toward Aeneas and the Trojans. Juno is Aeneas's primary antagonist—the character who most works against him—but her anger is not a central part of the first chronological event of the story, the fall of Troy. The first book also quickly introduces Dido, the character who comes closest to distracting Aeneas from his fate. Aeneas recounts to Dido the beginning of the Trojan's journey of exile, thus compressing seven years of travel into an overview that doesn't distract too much from the more dramatic events in Carthage and Italy. It also pays homage to Homer, paralleling the in medias res beginning of The Odyssey.

What is the significance of the epic simile about the public servant and the angry crowd in Book 1 of The Aeneid?

An epic simile is a detailed comparison over several lines, usually intended to make the hero even more heroic. In this simile people in the crowd are overcome by rage and thereby become "slaves to passion." Then a respected public servant "rules their furor with his words and calms their passion." In Book 1 Virgil uses this simile to describe how Neptune calms the storm created by Aeolus (at the command of Juno) that is destroying the Trojan ships. It also parallels the loss of reason to rage that Aeneas often experiences in battle, which plays a large part in the ending of the poem. Significantly, this simile is a comparison of people and politics when most other similes in The Aeneid are comparisons to nature. Virgil seems to have intentionally made this simile different to call attention to his argument for calm and reason over the destructive effects of rage. The public servant figure also brings to mind the public aspect of Aeneas's destiny.

How does Aeneas demonstrate pious honor and respect to gods, family, and country in Book 1 of The Aeneid?

Most of Aeneas's piety in Book 1 is focused on his responsibility to his country in the form of his fellow Trojans and his household gods. He raises the spirits of his people when they land after the storm even though he is worried about the ships that have been separated from his fleet. At times Aeneas suffers from inner struggles regarding what he must do to remain faithful, a characterization that differs from heroes in Homer's epics, who never seem to face such struggles. Yet Aeneas's sense of duty always prevails. One of the first actions Aeneas takes is to shoot enough deer to feed the people who are still with him. Only he and his right-hand man, Achates, explore the area in case there is danger. Aeneas makes sure to send food to his ships immediately after being welcomed in Carthage. Aeneas also displays devotion to the gods and family. When Aeneas introduces himself to his mother, the goddess Venus (who is in disguise), he emphasizes his pious duty to the Trojan household gods: "I am Aeneas, duty-bound./I carry aboard my ships the gods of house and home." When he recognizes that he is talking to a goddess (though he doesn't realize she is his mother), he offers sacrifices to Venus. Once the Trojans are welcomed in Carthage, "a father's love would give the man no rest" until Aeneas sends for his son, Ascanius.

How do the wills of various gods affect the destiny of Rome in Book 2 of The Aeneid?

The goddess Minerva (also known as Pallas Athena) works with the Greeks to destroy Troy. The Greek Sinon lies, saying she is angry with the Greeks for the theft of "the fateful image of Pallas out of her own hallowed shrine" in Troy. (The Odyssey lets the reader know she is angry, but not enough to make the Greeks lose the war.) Minerva seems to support Sinon's story by sending sea serpents to kill Laocoön and his sons. After the Greeks enter the city, the goddess Venus warns her son, Aeneas, to protect his family. She shows Aeneas that other gods—Juno, Minerva, Jupiter, even Troy's protector, Neptune—are aiding the Greeks in the city's final hours. When she appeases Aeneas's rage against the Greeks and convinces him to save his family, she ensures the destiny of Rome: the destruction of Troy must happen for Aeneas to become the father of Rome.

In Book 2 of The Aeneid, why are Aeneas's attempts to hold Creusa's ghost significant?

Aeneas's repeated attempts to hold his wife's ghost show his love for her and likely his guilt over losing track of her in their flight from the burning city of Troy. He doesn't want to accept that she is really gone and tries again and again to hold onto her. His inability to do so emphasizes the divide between the living and the dead. Death is a barrier that Creusa has crossed but Aeneas has not. Her ghost can appear and speak to him, but Aeneas and Creusa can no longer share the human comfort of touching. All that he has left of her are memories that are as insubstantial as her spirit. A character trying to hold the ghost of a loved one again pays homage to Homer, especially The Odyssey, in which Odysseus tries to hold his mother's ghost. Virgil also uses this device with Anchises's spirit in the Underworld in Book 6.

What is ironic about Aeneas and his soldiers stealing Greek armor in Book 2 of The Aeneid?

Aeneas and his soldiers steal the armor from the first group of Greeks and use it to get close to and kill other Greeks. They are essentially doing the same thing the Greeks did with the giant horse—appearing to be friendly or harmless in order to get inside their enemies' defenses and destroy them. The Trojans using this tactic might open the argument that this puts them on a similar moral level as the treacherous Greeks. However, a counterargument might be that the Trojans are acting in self-defense instead of as the attackers. Virgil seems to be pointing out that no one holds the moral high ground in war—it compromises both sides.

In Book 3 of The Aeneid, what do the leaves of the Sybil's prophecies represent?

In Book 3 of The Aeneid, Helenus warns Aeneas that the Sybil, a prophetess he must consult, writes her prophecies on leaves, which can get scattered by the wind and cannot then be reconstructed. This imagery represents the uncertainty of prophecy, the meaning of which can be misunderstood or lost. The fates the Sybil charts might be inevitable, but human understanding of them is not. The image also serves as a warning for Aeneas to get the Sybil's prophecy for him in words that cannot be scattered by the wind in Book 6.

How does Andromache illustrate honor and respect for family in Book 4 of The Aeneid?

Andromache has lost her husband, the great Trojan hero Hector, and her son, Astyanax, in the Trojan War. The character demonstrates the honor and respect for family that is part of the Roman concept of piety. When Aeneas first sees her, she is making offerings to her husband's spirit at a tomb she has built for him in Buthrotum. Even though his body lies in Troy, the empty tomb provides a place for her to remember and honor him. She also honors her lost son through gifts to Aeneas's son, Ascanius, who reminds her of her own son.

In Book 4 of The Aeneid what do the actions of Juno and Venus demonstrate about the will of the gods?

The goddess Venus sends Cupid to make Dido fall in love with Aeneas, while Juno tries to marry them to keep Aeneas in Carthage and prevent his fate. This does not work because Aeneas's fate is inevitable, even though his leaving ultimately destroys Dido. Juno's anger against Aeneas and his fate seems to cause her to forget that Carthage is her beloved city and that Dido, as her devoted worshiper, is building her a great temple. This demonstrates that the will of the gods can be changeable and careless to mortals in the way of their goals. The gods of Rome are just as imperfect as mortals, perhaps more so in some cases, a point Virgil develops throughout his epic, calling into question the issue of pietas, by which reverence for the gods is paid in public, and not necessarily in private.

What are Aeneas's character flaws in Book 4 of The Aeneid ?

Aeneas displays some of his most serious flaws in his dealings with Dido. He lingers in Carthage, giving her the impression that he is going to settle down, even though he knows he must go to Italy. He ignores his duty to his people and his son for a time for his own comfort and pleasure. Virgil says Aeneas feels "great love" for Dido, but when he is finally reminded of his duty and prepares to leave, he tells her that he really didn't marry her at all. Although his explanation lacks empathy for her feelings and takes little responsibility for his part in developing their relationship, the attachment to a woman is far outweighed by the call of duty in the Roman sense of virtue. It could be argued that his temporary distraction with Dido is the most humanly flawed moment for a hero who always does his duty to his family, the gods, and his people. At the same time, the episode and its conflicts save the character of Aeneas from being a heroic stereotype without weaknesses and faults.

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