Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | MonkeyNotes
These first lines tell you that the Aeneid has two major subjects: war and a man. You can already guess that this man will be a great warrior and that you will read about many battles. The Aeneid also describes this man's relationship to war: he is both a victim of war-an "exile," a refugee-and he will also be a conqueror when he founds his new city in Italy. But this isn't just a war story. It's a story about an individual and how he feels about his life, whom he loves, how he makes his decisions. He is a man "compelled by fate." He doesn't always want to do what he must do; often it isn't even his idea. But the prologue also tells you that this story will have a good ending. The man will reach Italy, and the city he founds will become everlasting Rome. From this we see that the Aeneid will also describe the early history of Rome.
The role of fate in men's lives is a crucial theme. As you read, ask yourself what that role is. Is fate a force for good or evil? Or is it neutral? Do men have any free choice? Are they responsible for their actions?
One of the most important things the prologue tells you is that the goddess Juno is responsible for much of this man's troubles. Why is she so furious? One reason is that Juno has discovered that the Romans are fated to destroy her favorite city, Carthage. (This actually happened in 146 B.C. during the Third Punic War, about a century before Virgil wrote the Aeneid.) The second reason is that she's been nursing a grudge against the Trojans since a Trojan named Paris didn't award her first prize in a beauty contest. The first reason seems a little odd: why is a goddess fighting fate? If fate is inevitable, why fight? Or can Juno win? The second reason is petty. What kind of goddess persecutes a good, honest, and religious man simply because she lost a beauty contest-especially when that man didn't have anything to do with it?
Keep an eye on Juno. She isn't a very admirable character, but she represents an important force in the world Virgil is describing: the power of uncontrolled anger. As you read, see how often rage leads to needless destruction. Later on you'll see that some gods who represent fairness and order, are opposed to Juno. The strange thing is that while they seem much nicer than Juno, they're never as interesting. You might want to think about why Virgil made such a mean character so vivid and real.
After giving you this background, Virgil begins the action. While the Trojans are relaxing in the sunshine, Juno is fuming and wondering whether she has to tolerate these people forever. Even though she knows that they are fated to reach Italy, she's irritated that everyone seems to be ignoring her, while other gods get their way. She decides to cause some trouble. She bribes Aeolus, the god of the winds, to help her sink the Trojan ships. If he'll let the winds out of the cave where he keeps them locked up, she'll give him her prettiest nymph. Of course Aeolus agrees and the winds whip out across the sea.
The sky turns black and winds batter the ships from all directions. Three ships are hurled onto rocks; one is stranded on a shoal; another is sucked into a whirlpool. Men are swimming everywhere, screaming for help. It looks like all is lost as Aeneas makes his first speech, which tells us a lot about his character and about what's on his mind.
O happy men, thrice happy, four times happy, Who had the luck to die, with their fathers watching Below the walls of Troy!