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Book V gives you a break from the tragedy and difficult moral questions of Book IV. The Trojans return to Drepanum, the place in Sicily where Aeneas' father Anchises had died. When they arrive, the king of Sicily, Acestes, is already on the beach to welcome them with wine and food. Aeneas pays his respects at his father's tomb, and he tells his people that it is exactly a year since Anchises died. Instead of mourning anymore, he suggests that they honor the anniversary by holding great athletic contests, known as funeral games.
The Romans, like the Greeks before them (who gave us the model for the Olympic Games), took athletic competition very seriously. Games were one way to practice skills needed in war, and they were often part of the rituals used to honor the dead. The competitions took people's minds off their worries and affirmed their sense of strength and well-being. Games were often part of religious ceremonies, as well. Augustus included them in religious rites in Rome, as part of his program to keep the youth of Rome fit both morally and physically.
In Book V we see five different events. The first is a boat race. Virgil's description of the race is exciting and funny-quite different from the tone we've been reading so far. The crews are straining at the oars; the crowd on shore is cheering wildly. Each boat must sail out to sea, swing around a huge rock, and return to shore. There are four boats and four captains. Gyas' boat takes the lead, but its pilot is too cautious and swings around the rock too widely, giving Cloanthus' boat a chance to get ahead. Gyas is so irritated by this that he throws his pilot overboard. The crowd on shore is hysterical as the poor man climbs onto the rock dripping wet. Sergestus' boat swings too close to the rock and breaks all its oars. But Menestheus makes it safely and begins to gain on Cloanthus. The crew is straining every muscle and they almost overtake Cloanthus but, at the last moment, Cloanthus prays to the gods for help. Then the sea nymphs push his boat over the water faster than Menestheus' men can row.
It's an exciting race and it's fun to read, but it has a hidden moral lesson, too. It's not good to be too cautious, like Gyas' pilot, or too reckless, like Sergestus. The winner chooses a middle course. But winning also depends on the gods' help. The man who prays wins. Here we see three basic virtues that the Romans of Virgil's day certainly respected: skill, moderation, and piety.
Aeneas gives the first prize to Cloanthus, but also gives an award to each of the other captains. He does the same thing in each of the other contests too, showing that he knows how to keep everybody in good humor.
Each of the contests that follow also illustrates a virtue or moral. For example, the footraces show the power of friendship. The young and swift Trojan men line up on the starting line and dash across a grassy field. Among them are Nisus and Euryalus, who are best friends. Nisus is in the lead and is about to win when he slips and falls. Realizing that he no longer has a chance, he cleverly trips the racer right behind him so that Euryalus wins.
In the boxing arena, an old Sicilian fights a young, overconfident Trojan and shows that skill and experience can be more powerful than youthful strength and quickness. In the archery contest, the Trojans' respect for the gods is shown. King Acestes wins first prize, not because he hits the target, but because his arrow bursts into flame as it flies-clearly an act of the gods. In the final event, the Trojan boys, led by Aeneas' son Ascanius, show their skills as riders in mock war games. Virgil tells us that the Roman boys still practiced these exercises in his day.
While the men are having all this fun, however, the women are moping on the beach by the ships. They're sick and tired of traveling. As you might expect, Juno sees her chance to cause more trouble. She sends a goddess named Iris, disguised as one of the women, to urge them to burn the fleet. Iris throws the first torch and the women go into a frenzy. Each grabs a torch and hurls it. The ships burst into flames. (Here is the imagery of fire and destruction again.)
When Aeneas discovers what's happened, he despairs. He prays to Jupiter for help. Sure enough, the heavens open up and a huge downpour puts out the fires. Only four ships are beyond repair.