In Book 1 of The Aeneid, Virgil announces his subject, saying that he will sing of "arms and a man," that is, of wars and the man Aeneas, who after the fall of Troy came as a fugitive from Troy to the shores of Italy, guided by fate. On the way he suffered greatly, and once he was there he had to face war, all because of the anger of Juno, before he could finally found a new city, from which came the Latin people and the walls of mighty Rome. Virgil asks the Muse to tell him the reasons for Juno's anger, expressing wonder that a god could feel such anger.
Juno loves the city of Carthage on the northern coast of Africa, and she wants it to become the ruler of the world, but she has heard that a city founded by descendants of Trojans will one day overthrow Carthage. She already hates all Trojans, bitter because Zeus loved the Trojan Ganymede and because the Trojan Paris awarded the prize of beauty to Venus and not to her. Enraged that the Trojans she hates should succeed in reaching Italy and starting a process that will lead to the defeat of the city she loves, she has kept the remnant of the Trojans led by Aeneas away from the shores of Italy for seven years.
As the story begins, the Trojans are leaving Sicily, hopeful of getting to the part of Italy they are destined to reach soon. But Juno broods on how powerless she will look if they succeed, and she goes to Aeolus, the ruler of the winds, and persuades him to let all his winds loose against the Trojan fleet. A horrible storm comes up, and death seems imminent. Aeneas responds by feeling helpless and paralyzed; he wishes he could have died on the battlefield, defending Troy. He watches as one ship after another is apparently destroyed by the raging winds and waves. But Neptune becomes aware of the tumult, rises to the surface, and calmly and firmly rebukes the winds for daring to act without his orders. The storm subsides, and Neptune saves all the ships but one. Aeneas thinks only the seven with him have been spared of the twenty he started with. The seven ships land on the shore of Libya. Though Aeneas does his best to cheer up his men, he is profoundly discouraged. Meanwhile Venus, the mother of Aeneas, complains to Jupiter about the treatment her son is receiving. Jupiter assures her that all will be well, and lays out the full destiny of Aeneas and his descendants, who include Julius Caesar. Aeneas will have a bitter war to fight in Italy, but he will conquer and found a city. He will only live three years after his victory, but his son Ascanius and his descendants will rule for centuries, and from their city will come Romulus, who will found Rome. To Rome Jupiter has assigned "empire without end," and he promises, after Julius Caesar's ascent to heaven, that there will be an end to war.
Aeneas goes exploring, with his faithful Achates, and meets his mother disguised as a young huntress. She tells him the story of the founding of the nearby town, Carthage, by Dido, leader of Tyrians escaping the rule of Dido's brother, a tyrant who had killed Dido's husband. Cutting short his sad tale of all the tribulations he and his people have endured, Venus encourages Aeneas to seek help there. She also assures him that his other ships are safe. He only recognizes the young huntress as his mother by the beauty she reveals as she leaves, and he calls after her a reproach for not giving him the comfort of open contact with her.
As the two men go on into the town, Venus hides them in a mist. They wonder at the building activity going on all around them, and Aeneas envies the Tyrians for getting to build their city now, without the endless voyaging he has had to endure. When Aeneas sees on one of the new buildings pictures of the Trojan War, he takes comfort in seeing that the history of the fall of Troy is known here, and so they care about such human suffering-surely they will receive him kindly. As he is lost in gazing at these empty images of the past, Dido comes toward him in all her beauty, followed by a throng, and encouraging the work of building. The captains of the ships Aeneas had thought lost come to make their suit to her-the other Tyrians are threatening to burn their ships and kill them. She immediately grants them the hospitality of the city and even invites them to become equal citizens, wishing that Aeneas himself were there.
Venus dissolves the mist that has hidden Aeneas and his companion, and Aeneas appears, his beauty heightened by his mother's power. He thanks Dido with deep feeling for her readiness to welcome them. She is awed by the presence of one of whom she has heard so much, and tells him that her own suffering makes her feel for his. She invites him to a banquet, and he accepts, sending Achates to bring his young son Ascanius and gifts for Dido to the feast.
Venus decides that the only way Aeneas will be completely safe from any plots Juno might contrive is if Dido falls totally in love with him, so she sends her son, Cupid, to take the appearance of Ascanius and breathe hidden fire into Dido when she takes him on her lap.
Falling deeper and deeper in love as the feast goes on, Dido makes libation to Jupiter and prays that this day that has brought Tyrians and Trojans together may be remembered as a day of joy by their descendants. She begs Aeneas to tell the whole story of the fall of Troy and his own seven years of seafaring.
Virgil lived through many years of civil war before Augustus Caesar, heir of Julius Caesar, finally assumed power, not as emperor, but (in theory at least) as restorer of the ancient Republic and of the religion and morality (always completely intertwined for the Romans) that had been the basis, as most Romans believed, of the amazing rise of Rome from one small city-state to the ruler of the Mediterranean world. Augustus encouraged both Virgil and Horace, the two greatest poets of the day, to write in support of his vision of a renewed Rome. Virgil chose to embody the vision in an epic set back in the time of the aftermath of the Trojan War, believed to have taken place about a thousand years before, and he chose as his hero Aeneas, an important warrior and a cousin of Hector, the greatest Trojan warrior. Aeneas was mentioned in Homer's Iliad as destined to rule the Trojans after the fall of Troy, and the legend had grown up that he had led the remnant of the Trojans to Italy, and that the most ancient Roman families were descendants of the Trojans. The Julian clan, from which Julius Caesar (and Augustus, as his adopted son) came, claimed descent from Aeneas's son Ascanius, also called Iulus.
Paradoxically, Aeneas does not seem very heroic as the story opens. He has been trying to fulfill his destiny and lead the remnant of the Trojans to Italy for seven years, and just when it seems they are going to make it, Juno contrives to almost destroy them with a storm. Virgil thus begins the story with Aeneas at a low point; when Aeneas speaks for the first time, it is to wish he had died at Troy. What led to this low point Virgil uses a "flashback" to tell-in Books 2 and 3, he has Aeneas tell Dido the whole story of the fall of Troy and his wanderings.
One way of seeing the whole poem is that it is the story of a man becoming a true hero, a model of what a Roman hero ought to be-perhaps partly a portrait of Augustus, perhaps partly a message to Augustus. At the same time, many have felt that Virgil was too humane and skeptical to completely accept the Roman dream of peace through conquest and just rule. He may have wanted to believe that with Augustus war would be at an end, that the Romans would now rule so well and justly that peace would prevail, but did he? It is certainly interesting that two of the best-known recent translations of the Aeneid were heavily influenced by the translators' exposure to the horrors of war-Allen Mandelbaum speaks in his preface of the effect of working on his translation as the Vietnam War raged, and Robert Fitzgerald in his Postscript speaks of first reading the Aeneid for the first time during World War II. Still, an either-or perspective is probably too simple; perhaps the most widely accepted interpretation is that Virgil believed in Rome's destiny and hoped the fulfillment of it could mean at least a somewhat more peaceful world, yet was keenly aware of the price that had to be paid for accepting the destiny of empire, of the simple human happiness that had to be given up. According to that reading, ambivalence is at the heart of the Aeneid.
One other crucial point: Carthage did become Rome's greatest rival and enemy, and from 264 to 146 BC the three Punic Wars were fought between the two cities. (Punic is the Latin word for Phoenician-the Tyrians who settled Carthage were Phoenicians.) At one point Rome was almost destroyed; in the end the Romans destroyed Carthage. Aeneas could not have come to a land that would have felt more threatening to Virgil's first readers, nor could the irony have been heavier, when Dido prays that the coming together of the two peoples may be remembered with joy by their descendants.