Why is the first book of the Aeneid important?


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Notes Book 1 of the Aeneid

Why is the first book of the Aeneid important?

  • It sets the scene by giving the time and the place of the tale

  • Most of he main characters are introduced. You meet Aeneas and Dido, and the gods Jupiter, Juno and Venus.

  • It indicates the plot. The hero is trying to reach Italy, but it is by no means certain that he will succeed.

  • The main themes are introduced. Aeneas is a man with a divine mission, driven by Fate to establish in Italy the race that will found Rome and rule the world.

  • You are introduced to the mixture of legend, history and the timeless supernatural world of Fate and the gods that together make up the poem.

  • You find the Aeneid can be read on several levels. At its simplest it is the travels and toil of Aeneas, but it has messages about Augustan politics, religion, and about life in general. Book 1 touches on some of these deeper meanings.

Firstly, lets look at the basic structure of Book 1.

    • It begins with the poet’s statement of what his poem is about – Aeneas, his destined mission to settle in Italy and his trials caused by Juno.

    • Virgil asks the muses for inspiration to tell his story – the standard prayer to begin an epic.

    • We hear why Juno was persecuting the Trojans

    • Juno asks Aeolus, King of the winds to create a storm

    • The storm strikes

    • Neptune, friend of the Trojans calms the waves

    • The Trojans land in Africa near Carthage

    • Venus asks Jupiter when the Trojan ill-fortune will end
    • Jupiter promises success for Aeneas and a glorious future to Aeneas’ descendants

    • Jupiter sends Mercury to make sure Dido welcomes Aeneas

    • Venus visits Aeneas to give him information about the place he has reached (Carthage) and the story of its queen (Dido) and the safety of his lost ships and men.

    • Aeneas goes to Carthage, and sees Dido and his lost companions

    • Dido welcomes the Trojans

    • Venus decides to substitute Cupid for Ascanius (Iulus) and make Dido fall in love with Aeneas.

    • Dido entertains the Trojans at a banquet and asks Aeneas to tell his story.

In more detail:

Aeneas is ‘fated to be an exile’. Fate or destiny is always behind human action in the Aeneid, and here it is Fate directing what will happen over hundreds of years from Troy to Rome.

Next we read why it wasn’t easy for Aeneas to do as he was told by Fate. Juno hated the Trojans and was determined to make life as difficult as possible for them. There are the mythological reasons.
On another level, Virgil makes Juno favour the historical city Carthage which Rome was to fight for supremacy in the Mediterranean and ultimately destroy, and on a third level Juno represents the seemingly senseless unjust disasters which strike human beings who are trying to obey the gods and do what is right. She symbolises violence, destruction and chaos

Then we meet our hero in the middle of a storm Juno inflicts on him. We might expect him to be brave in such danger but instead he is terrified, and wishes he had died in Troy. Virgil has deliberately shown Aeneas on his first appearance as a weak human rather than an all-powerful superman. He his done his best for seven years through disaster after disaster and is nearly at the end of his tether. Will he manage to keep going?

Now Neptune calms the sea and his action too can be taken on several levels. At its simplest, he represents a natural storm, which subsides as fast as it blows up. On another level he shows that gods can be friendly or unfriendly, and some are more powerful than others. Neptune favours the Trojans several times in the Aeneid and is able to control the winds released by Aeolus. But on a third level he is compared to a statesman calming the anger of a mob in an assembly. Virgil may have been thinking of some event that actually happened in the Roman forum, but is more likely to be thinking in general of Augustus, who had calmed the passions of the civil wars, and given the Romans peace.

In this passage Virgil uses two Latin words that are key words throughout the poem.

Furor: the fury or violence, here of the mob
Pietas: dedication to duty, here the responsible attitude of the statesman.

Throughout the poem we will find these two ideas constantly opposed to each other. Neptune’s first reaction is anger, but he controls himself and calms the violence of Juno. So too it is Aeneas’ task to try and calm the force of furor in himself and others, and practise pietas instead.

Aeneas shows his leadership when his ships land in Africa. He provides his people with food and consoles them cheerfully, though he himself is full of worry and grief for the ships that are lost. Virgil calls him ‘Aeneas the true’ a reference to the pietas he displays by doing his duty and caring for his followers.

Now Venus takes a hand in the action, and complains bitterly to Jupiter about the Trojan’s misfortunes. Jupiter answers her in one of the most important passages in the book. Here legend and history, reality and the supernatural are skilfully woven together in a clear statement of the main theme of the book.

What impression do we receive of Jupiter in this passage? We see the master of the world who calms storms and clears the sky, smiling as he tells Venus what will happen. He is beyond violence, passion and suffering, suggesting a higher level of existence than that of humans, and higher than the rest of the gods.

Virgil’s readers now know what Aeneas is supposed to do and why it is so important for him to succeed in reaching Italy. But in book 2 it becomes clear that he has been trying to do his duty and fulfil the commands of the gods and yet those same gods seem to be doing everything they can to stop him. So when he meets his mother, disguised as a Carthaginian huntress, he’s fairly disgruntled and complains about the treatment the gods have dished out. But Venus has just been reassured by Jupiter that Aeneas will succeed, so she brushes his complaints aside and tells him to get on with the job.

Venus also tells Aeneas that his companions lost in the storm are safe and gives him (and us, the reader) a lot of useful information about Dido. Aeneas now goes to Carthage, accompanied by Achates. Achates is ‘faithful’ but like the other Trojans in the story only has a shadowy personality to emphasise Aeneas’ lone role as a leader. Concealed by Venus is a mist for safety, Aeneas sees a scene of happy confident activity as the former inhabitants of Tyre build their new city, ‘as busy as bees’ and thinks sadly of his own unfulfilled destiny. Seven years earlier in Troy he was told to build a city in a western land and despite all his efforts he is no nearer to his goal.

Now he comes to the newly built temple to Juno – remember how Juno especially loved Carthage, so it is natural she was paid special honour there. On the door of the temple Aeneas sees scenes from Juno’s latest victory – the defeat of Troy – moulded in bronze. Aeneas even recognises himself on the doors, suggesting he is even known in this land so far distant from Troy, and the inhabitants may sympathise with his troubles.
While Aeneas is concentrating his attention on these pictures of Troy he is still ‘shrouded in a soft mist’, Dido walks into the temple surrounded by her people. She is beautiful, dignified and an excellent Queen, directing the building of her city and the creation of laws. Note the carefully positive, happy pictures we are given here of Dido and Carthage, which will contrast with unhappy scenes in book 4. Aeneas is amazed to see his lost Trojan companions appear and appeal to Dido to stop her people from attacking them further. Ironically if she had been ‘barbarous’ enough to wipe out the strangers she would have saved herself future heartache and death. But prompted by Jupiter Dido welcomes the Trojans and their leader, gifts are exchanged and a royal banquet prepared to honour the Trojans. Meantime however Venus recalls how Juno’s hatred drove the Trojans off course to Africa and is afraid of some other trick to harm her son. She is not satisfied that Jupiter’s intervention is enough to keep Aeneas safe so summons her son Cupid to take the place of Aeneas’ son with the intention of making Dido fall in love with Aeneas.

But Dido herself is very good looking and we know that Aeneas is weary of trying to obey the gods’ commands and getting nowhere. Is it possible he might fall in love with her and settle down to domestic bliss in Africa? But what about that little mission in Italy Jupiter is talking about? We find out the outcome in Book 4. Dido asks Aeneas to tell the story of how he came to be in Africa and that is the end of Book 1.


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