Principal characters:

  • Aeneas – thirty-something Trojan prince and warrior who has survived the fall of the city [4J]* and undertaken a mission to found a new city in some distant, western land.
  • Anchises – the father of Aeneas; reluctantly leaves Troy, but dies en route to Italy, on Sicily (Bk. 3) [5C]. Visited by Aeneas in the underworld (Bk. 6).
  • Ascanius (a.k.a. "Iulus") – the son of Aeneas; anywhere from about seven to about seventeen years old during the action of the poem; Vergil can’t seem to keep track.
  • Creusa – the wife of Aeneas; lost during the destruction of Troy (Bk. 2).
  • Dido – thirty-something, still nubile (indeed boffo) queen of the newly-built city of Carthage [6A]; she and her people are refugees from Tyre in Phoenicia.
  • Helen – wife of the Greek leader Menelaus, accompanies (is abducted by?) the Trojan Paris; the cause of the Trojan War.
  • Juno [=Greek Hera] – the wife/sister of Jupiter; arch-enemy of the Trojans till Book 12.
  • Jupiter [=Greek Zeus] – "father of gods and men"; the most powerful and far-sighted of the Olympian deities.
  • Latinus – king of the Latins at Laurentum, near the mouth of the Tiber River.
  • Lavinia – the daughter of Latinus; the prize of victory in the fight between Turnus and Aeneas.
  • Neptune [=Greek Poseidon] – god of the sea, earthquakes, thoroughbred horses, etc.
  • Pallas – a young Arcadian warrior sent by his father Evander to assist Aeneas in his war with the Latins.
  • Turnus – the greatest of the Italian warriors; prince of the Rutulian people.
  • Venus [=Greek Aphrodite] – goddess of erotic love; Miss Universe of 1193 B.C. Pro-Trojan mother of Aeneas. Alias: "lady from Cythera" [an island sacred to her; 6H].
*Numbers and letters in square brackets [thus] indicate map coordinates on pages 342-43 of Virgil: The Aeneid, trans. D. West (New York: Penguin, 1990).
N.B.: For Books 1, 2, 4, 6-7, and 12, there are short summaries and study questions. For Books 3, 5, 8-11, there are somewhat longer summaries.

Book 1:

Aeneas and his fellow Trojan War refugees are beset by a storm at sea, off the coast of Sicily. After Neptune calms the sea, seven of the Trojan ships reach shore safely in Libya in North Africa, near the newly founded city of Carthage [6A]. Aeneas receives guidance from his mother Venus (disguised as a local huntress) and goes to Carthage. There he meets Queen Dido and is warmly received. Dido treats Aeneas and his men to a great banquet. As the Book ends, she asks Aeneas to recount the story of the fall of Troy and his adventures in the seven years since.

  • Why does Juno hate Trojans so much?
  • What is Aeneas doing the first time we see him in the poem? Does he seem heroic?
  • Is it plausible that Dido would be so impressed with Aeneas?

Book 2:

Aeneas tells how the Trojans make the mistake of listening to Sinon, the Greek "plant," instead of La÷coon, and bring the wooden horse inside Troy’s walls in the tenth year of the war. Aeneas has a dream in which Hector, the recently killed champion of the Trojans, appears to him. The Greeks destroy the city; Aeneas fights desperately, witnesses the death of King Priam, and returns to his house to rescue his family. The refugees escape the city and gather near the neighboring Mt. Ida.

  • What signs and warnings do the Trojans ignore that might have saved them from destruction?
  • At one point during the battle for the city, Aeneas sees Helen. What is significant about that close encounter?
  • How does Vergil justify the—on the face of it—unheroic circumstance of Aeneas’ surviving the fall of his city? Why doesn’t he "go down with the ship"?

Book 3:

This Book describes the journeys of Aeneas during the years since the fall of Troy. These have carried him all over the Mediterranean. In Thrace [3J], the Trojans find the spirit of Polydorus, a son of Priam, trapped in a shrub; he had been murdered for his gold by the Thracian king. Aeneas gives his soul peace by performing proper burial rites for him.

At the island of Delos [5J], the oracle of Apollo advises the Trojans to find their original homeland. Anchises mistakenly believes the island of Crete [6J] is meant. But when they begin to build a city there, disease and drought afflict the people and their land. At a loss, they are planning to return to Delos for further (and clearer) instructions, but Aeneas has a vision of the Penates (household spirits), who inform tell him that the "original home" is "Hesperia" (i.e. "West Land" = Italy), where their ancestor, Dardanus, was born.

Next stop is a group of islands called the Strophades [5G]. Here they encounter the monstrous Harpies, creatures who are part woman and part bird. When the Trojans try to eat, these monsters fly down and foul the food. Celaeno, queen of the Harpies, foretells that one day the Trojans will be so hungry that they will "eat their tables."

They now sail past many Greek cities, including Ithaca [5F], the island of "fearsome" Ulysses (Odysseus). At Actium [4F], on the west coast of Greece, they hold purification rites and celebrate Trojan games. At Buthrotum [4F] in Epirus, they encounter Helenus, another son of Priam, who is king and the husband of Andromache, Hector’s widow. Aeneas has a tender and sorrowful reunion with Andromache. She and Helenus have in effect built a "New Troy" in this distant land. Helenus, a prophet by trade, warns Aeneas of obstacles he will face. He tells him he will know he has reached his true destination when he sees a white sow and thirty piglets in an oak grove. He also advises Aeneas to avoid Scylla and Charybdis and to pay special homage to the goddess Juno.

The Trojans at last catch sight of (the heel of) Italy [4E], sail past Scylla and Charybdis (the straits of Sicily [5D]), and make a brief stop near Mt. Etna [5C]. Here they meet a Greek named Achaemenides, who has been abandoned by Ulysses. As he tells the story of an encounter with a one-eyed, man-eating ogre, the monster himself—the Cyclops Polyphemus—appears and the terrified Trojans board ship (taking Achaemenides with them) and sail away.

The Trojans land on the west coast of Sicily, at the town of Drepanum [5B]. Here Anchises dies, and is mourned by his devoted son Aeneas.
Book 4:

Dido’s feelings for Aeneas evolve into a burning love, consummated in a year-long love affair. Aeneas is finally reminded of his mission by Mercury, whom Jupiter himself has sent to set the quest for Italy in motion again. A violent scene of accusation and recrimination ensues between Dido and Aeneas. Aeneas departs; Dido takes desperate measures.

  • How does Vergil "slant" our understanding of the affair between Aeneas and Dido? Is there a sense that the relationship is doomed from the start?
  • The liaison between Aeneas and Dido is partly the result of divine interference (or catalysis). Who interferes and why?
  • It is sometimes said that Aeneas behaves in a vile way in ending his affair with Dido and that he never recovers from this in the reader’s eyes. Do you agree?
  • Vergil capitalizes on an irony that stems from the fact that Dido is queen of Carthage. How does that irony play out in Book 4?

Book 5:

Book 5 takes place on the island of Sicily, to which the Trojans have returned after leaving Libya. Most of the Book is occupied with the celebration of the one-year anniversary of the death of Anchises. The elaborate funeral games held as part of the festival recall a similar episode in Book 23 of Homer’s Iliad. The games in Aeneid 5 include a boat race, a foot race, and contests in boxing and archery. Especially entertaining is the foot race, in which the two close friends, Nisus and Euryalus compete. Nisus is in the lead, but slips and falls; he then blocks the second runner, Salius, so that his friend Euryalus can move up from third to first and win the race. (The first moving pick in sports history.) Nisus and Euryalus will figure importantly later, in Book 9. The games are closed with a special equestrian event: a cavalry squadron of thirty-six Trojan youths, led by Aeneas’ son, Ascanius, performs a complicated sequence of equine maneuvers.

The general good feeling of the games is dispelled by an act of sabotage committed by the Trojan women. The messenger goddess, Iris, sent by Juno, appears (disguised) and stirs up the Trojan womenfolk, who are weary of the seemingly endless post-war journey they have endured. The women take matters into their own hands by setting fire to the ships. Four ships are in fact totally destroyed, but the others are saved by a rain storm sent by Jupiter, who has been invoked by Aeneas for this purpose. An elderly seer named Nautes advises the demoralized Aeneas to leave behind in Sicily those who are too old or exhausted (or pyromaniacal?) to continue. Aeneas complies and lays out a new city for these people, with the agreement of the local leader, kindly King Acestes.

During his stay on Sicily, Aeneas has a vision in which his dead father, Anchises, bids his son to visit him in the Underworld. On the supernatural level, Venus arranges with her uncle, Neptune, for a safe passage for the Trojans on their way to Italy. Neptune cooperates but stipulates the price of "one life given up for many." That life belongs to the Trojan helmsman, Palinurus, who, overcome by the god of sleep ("Somnus"), falls overboard, still (bless his heart) clutching the steering wheel, and drowns during the night passage to Italy. Cape Palinurus [4C] is named for this sacrificial victim of Trojan destiny.

Three of the first five Books have ended with a death (in 2, Creusa; in 4, Dido; in 5, Palinurus). Book 6 will involve a visit to the land of the dead in the Underworld. All this before we get to the real bloodshed in Books 7-12. The Aeneid is not a musical comedy.
Book 6:

In this Book, Aeneas and his followers finally reach Italy, landing at Cumae [3C], near the Bay of Naples. The prophetess known as the Cumaean Sibyl assists Aeneas in finding the entrance to the Underworld and accompanies him on his journey through the land of the dead. They meet various souls, including Anchises, who dwells in the region known as the Elysian Fields (kind of a cross between limbo and a pretty nice state park). Anchises treats his son to a review of the souls of future Romans and then gives him a prophetic summary of the strengths of Roman civilization. Aeneas returns through the Gate of Ivory and rejoins his fleet. This ends what has often been called the Odyssean half of the Aeneid.

  • Why does Vergil have Aeneas meet the soul of Dido in the Underworld?
  • How does Anchises try to make Aeneas enthusiastic about Roman destiny? Does he succeed?
  • What is the significance of Anchises’ account of the soul of the younger Marcellus?

Book 7:

Aeneas sails on up the west coast of Italy, reaching  the mouth of the Tiber River and Laurentum, the city of King Latinus. The old king and his wife, Amata, have betrothed their daughter, Lavinia, to Turnus, prince of the neighboring Rutulian people. Negative portents and prophetic warnings have delayed the marriage. The Trojans, after landing, prepare a meal that includes round cakes (like pita bread); they are delighted when they realize that these are the "tables" prophesied by the Harpy Celaeno (in Book 3).   The Trojans build a camp and begin to make contact with Latinus, who receives them hospitably.  Juno employs an Underworld demon, the Fury Allecto, to upset the Trojan-Latin apple cart.  Among other things, Allecto arranges a casus belli or flashpoint to ignite war: Ascanius kills a tame stag that was the pet of Silvia, the daughter of Latinus’s game warden. The city's inhabitants, along with Turnus and the Rutulians, push for war. Latinus abdicates and holes up in his palace. The Book concludes with a lengthy, Homeric style (compare Iliad Book 2) roll call of the Italian forces, including Turnus; the Etruscan exile Mezentius and his son Lausus; and Camilla, an amazonesque woman warrior.

  • Why is Latinus so favorably disposed toward Aeneas as a possible suitor for his daughter?
  • Does Juno go too far in letting loose the Fury Allecto to further her own interests?   Does she herself ever have second thoughts about this?

Book 8:

Aeneas, badly outnumbered and in need of reinforcements, is visited in a dream by the personified river-deity, Tiber, who advises him to seek alliance with Evander, the king of an Arcadian colony some miles up river at Pallanteum. Aeneas also sees the white sow that Helenus had forecast in Book 3. Again, the Trojans know they are in the right place.

Evander receives Aeneas cordially and is amenable to his request for military assistance, since he is an enemy of the Latins. In the course of Aeneas’ visit, he is shown the sites in Pallanteum and its environs. It is obvious from many of the points of interest that this is the future site of the city of Rome. In the night, Venus persuades her husband, the smith-god Vulcan, to fashion a special set of arms for Aeneas. He sets to work.

Evander designates part of his forces to accompany Aeneas; these include a cavalry contingent led by his son, Pallas, whom the king solemnly entrusts to Aeneas. He also advises the Trojan leader to enlist the aid of Etruscan forces, who are eager to fight the exiled criminal Mezentius. Aeneas takes this advice.

The Book closes with an encounter between Venus and Aeneas. The goddess takes her son to a secluded vale and presents him with the glorious gold and electrum armor manufactured by Vulcan and his Cyclopean assistants. On the shield, Vulcan has etched many scenes from Roman history (the future, from Aeneas’ perspective): everything from Romulus and Remus up to the Battle of Actium; the image of Augustus is conspicuous. (The Homeric analogue is the spectacular Shield of Achilles, created for him by Hephaestus at the urging of Thetis, the Greek hero’s goddess-mother; see Iliad, Book 18.)
Book 9:

During the absence of Aeneas, Juno sends her messenger, Iris, to impel Turnus to stage a surprise attack on the Trojan camp. Under orders from Aeneas to stay in a strictly defensive mode, the Trojans stay inside the walls of the camp, even when Turnus is about to set their ships afire. A miraculous transformation now occurs, as the ships transform into sea nymphs (the goddess Cybele somehow has a hand in this). Both sides take this as a favorable omen.

Nisus and Euryalus embark on a night-time expedition to penetrate the Italian lines and warn Aeneas. The two stop to butcher Rutulians in their sleep (like the more successful Odysseus and Diomedes in Iliad Book 10). They get carried away and attract the notice of a cavalry patrol. Nisus manages to get away, but then goes back to find Euryalus, who has in fact been captured. The two friends put up a brave fight but are killed. The Italians display their heads on spears before the Trojan camp at first light. There ensues a violent assault on the camp—led by Mezentius and Turnus in particular; heavy fighting, in which Ascanius, among others, distinguishes himself.

Some Trojans attempting a foray outside the camp foolishly open the gates. They are repulsed, but cannot close the gates before Turnus bursts in. He fights ferociously, single-handedly killing many Trojans. About to be overwhelmed, he escapes by throwing himself in the Tiber.
Book 10:

This Book begins with a council of the Olympian gods. This devolves into a bitter argument between Juno, who favors the war against the Trojans, and Venus, who deplores it. Jupiter insists on impartiality and declares that Fate will decide the outcome.

Back at the ranch, the Trojan camp is under a heavy siege. Luckily, Aeneas arrives on the scene with thirty ships of reinforcements; these are tabulated in a brief catalog. In the face of enemy opposition, they manage to land and a fierce battle ensues. Distinguishing themselves on the battle field are Aeneas and Pallas on one side, and Turnus and Lausus on the other.

Turnus meets and kills Pallas in the course of the fighting. He strips his sword belt as a memento of victory. Aeneas, enraged at the killing of his young ally, seeks Turnus but fails to find him in the thick of battle. Instead he gives himself up to bloodthirsty massacre of the enemy; his personal body count soars.

Juno interferes by diverting Turnus from the battlefield. In his absence, Mezentius takes over the leadership role. He is especially adept at killing Etruscans. Finally, he is wounded by Aeneas. His son, Lausus, comes to his aid, but is cut down by Aeneas, who feels—after the fact—a pang of regret as he contemplates Lausus’s show of pietas. Aeneas then kills the richly deserving Mezentius.
Book 11:

This Book begins with a truce for burial of the dead. Pallas’s body is sent back to Pallanteum and his grief-stricken father, Evander, who charges Aeneas with the duty of avenging his son. There is dissension in Laurentum: Drances criticizes Turnus and recommends settling with the Trojans, granting them land and marrying Lavinia to Aeneas. Turnus in response accuses Drances of cowardice.

Word now reaches the Latins in Laurentum that Aeneas and the Trojans are on the march. Turnus again seizes the initiative and rallies him men. Camilla now becomes a prominent co-leader. She and Turnus plan a cavalry attack on the Trojans. Vergil recounts Camilla’s life story, in particular her upbringing by the goddess Diana. Camilla is in fact about to meet her death. Knowing this, Diana charges the nymph Opis with the task of killing the man who slays Camilla.

The cavalry assault triggers intense fighting, during which Camilla enjoys an aristeia (period of pre-eminence; being "in the zone"). She strikes down countless Trojans and Etruscans. Her luck runs out and she is killed by the Etruscan warrior Arruns, whom Opis "locks on" and slays in turn.

Aeneas and his forces pursue the now disorganized Italians back toward Laurentum. Turnus attacks from an ambush, but the day’s hostilities are cut short by nightfall.
Book 12:

The focus of this Book is the duel with Aeneas proposed by Turnus. The stage for this is set by the preceding general fight, during which Aeneas makes an unexpected direct attack on the city. Queen Amata, seeing the handwriting on the wall, commits suicide. The following pre-arranged monomachia (one-on-one combat) between Turnus and Aeneas is the climax of the Iliadic half of the Aeneid.

  • What sort of settlement of differences is reached by the Olympian gods in this Book?
  • Why does Aeneas kill the beaten and suppliant Turnus at the very end? Was it a necessary act?
  • Is the ending of the Aeneid satisfying or troubling?

Comments?  Questions?  Suggestions? -- Send e-mail

a.d. x Kal. Apr., anno mmxiv