Virgil begins his epic poem with a succinct statement of its theme: He will sing of war and the man — Aeneas — who, driven by fate, sailed from Troy's shores to Italy, where he founded a city called Lavinium, the precursor of Rome. Why, Virgil asks, appealing to the muse of epic poetry, does Juno, the queen of the gods, harass such a good man? He mentions two explicit reasons for Juno's hostility: her love for Carthage and corresponding hatred for the future Rome, which is destined to overthrow her favorite city; and her lingering resentment because Paris, a Trojan, did not award her the golden apple, the prize given to the most beautiful woman in the world. She also hates the Trojans because one of their ancestors was Dardanus, the son of Jupiter — Juno's husband and king of the gods — and Electra, a daughter of Atlas and Juno's rival for Jupiter's affection. Finally, Juno is angry because Jupiter made Ganymede, a Trojan prince, the gods's cupbearer.
Seeing the Trojans set sail for Italy, Juno commands Aeolus, the god of the winds, to raise a storm that will capsize their ships and drown them all. Aeolus obeys her. Many of the ships appear to be lost at sea.
Neptune, the god of the sea, angry because Aeolus has infringed on his own territory, calms the water, and the seven remaining ships of Aeneas's fleet find a safe harbor on the North African coast of Libya, site of the city of Carthage.
Meanwhile, Aeneas's mother, the goddess Venus, reminds Jupiter of his promise that the Trojans will reach Italy and become the forebears of the Roman people. Jupiter quiets her fears by telling her that the Trojans will arrive in Latium; Aeneas will win a great battle and found the city of Lavinium; his son, Ascanius, also known as Iulus, will found Alba Longa, near the future site of Rome; and Romulus will eventually found Rome itself, which will conquer the world, including Greece. Juno will come to love the Romans, and at last a Trojan caesar named Julius, after Aeneas's son Iulus — not Julius Caesar, but his heir by adoption, Augustus — will bring an age of peace.
Jupiter now sends Mercury, the messenger god, to Carthage to put the Carthaginians and their queen, Dido, in a mood to receive the Trojans favorably. The next morning, Aeneas sets out with his companion Achatës to explore the region. They meet Venus, who, disguised as a Carthaginian huntress, tells them that they are near Carthage, a city founded by Dido, who fled with her followers from the Phoenician city of Tyre after her evil brother, Pygmalion, murdered her husband, Sychaeus. Advising Aeneas to go to Dido's palace, Venus assures her son that the missing ships and his comrades are safe. As she turns away, Aeneas recognizes her as his mother and reproaches her for always appearing to him in disguise.
Enveloped now in a cloud that Venus has thrown over them to make them invisible, Aeneas and Achatës observe the people of Carthage at their various tasks. They come at last to a grove, where they find a great temple built to honor Juno. Entering the temple, they see that its walls are covered with decorative panels that depict scenes from the Trojan War, which fill Aeneas with sorrow.
As Aeneas inspects the murals more closely, Dido and her attendants enter the temple. A woman of great beauty and majesty, she seats herself on her throne and holds court. To Aeneas and Achatës's joy and amazement, the men from the missing Trojan ships enter the temple and are received hospitably by the queen, who listens sympathetically as they explain who they are and what has happened to them. At this point, the cloud that shrouds Aeneas and Achatës vanishes, and they are reunited with their companions.
Dido welcomes Aeneas and prepares a banquet in his honor. Aeneas sends for Ascanius, whom Venus, fearing that Juno will again cause trouble, replaces with her own son, Cupid, the god of love, in disguise. She knows that Cupid will fill Dido with passion for Aeneas, thus ensuring the hero's safety. That night at the banquet, Dido unsuspectingly embraces Cupid, thinking that he is Ascanius, and she is filled with love for Aeneas. Overcome by curiosity and admiration, she invites the Trojan hero to describe his wanderings and misfortunes to her and her guests.
Postponing until Book II the account of Troy's invasion by the Greeks, which is the chronological starting point of his poem, Virgil begins the Aeneid at what may well be its most crucial and dramatic moment: at the very instant when the Trojans, after many years of wandering, are swept away from their goal of finding a homeland and are stranded on foreign shores that Virgil's readers would have recognized as enemy territory. The elation that the Trojans all felt as they sailed from Sicily is changed to horror and despair, and although by this time Aeneas has been given many prophecies of his eventual success, he must struggle to summon up a brave front for the benefit of his disconsolate companions.
This opening book offers an excellent example of the literary device known as in medias res, a Latin expression meaning "in the middle of things." Common to ancient epics, this narrative technique immediately engages readers's attention by getting the story under way at a crucial point in the action. Virgil's beginning Aeneas's story this way allows the events surrounding the fall of Troy and the adventures that ensue to be narrated afterwards by Aeneas himself. Carthage's Queen Dido, already in love with the Trojan warrior, will find many more good reasons to admire him as he unintentionally presents himself to her as a model of heroism.
Throughout the Aeneid, the actions of human beings are accompanied by the actions of gods and goddesses, who constantly intervene in human affairs as partisans or enemies, and who are remarkably human in their own passions. Juno, for example, possesses a seemingly inexhaustible supply of grudges against the Trojans. Fittingly, her voice is heard first in the poem, and its tone is outrage: She will be the major impediment to Aeneas's unfortunate struggles to found a homeland. Also dramatically significant is that her appearance as the epic's chief divine antagonist should be followed soon afterward by the entrance of Venus, who, as the hero's indulgent and protective mother, opposes Juno with a force that will ultimately prevail.
In Book I, Virgil seems to pay more attention to divine actions than to human concerns. In addition to our learning about Juno's all-consuming jealousy of Aeneas's fated glory, we see how petty and territorial her fellow gods are. For example, Aeolus is easily bribed to wreak havoc against Aeneas's fleet by Juno's promising him an exquisite nymph for a wife. Juno has obviously favored him in the past: He concedes that he owes her for everything she has done for him. However, like a pair of bickering children, the territorial sea god Neptune chastises his sister Juno and calms his seas.
Although we applaud Venus's protection of her son, she is as manipulative of humans as Juno is. However, because Aeneas is the epic's hero, we are more likely to forgive Venus's indiscretionary power. For example, she causes Dido to fall in love with Aeneas out of fear that the queen otherwise might harm either her son or grandson, or both. However, Venus is not personally against Dido; rather, she is for Aeneas. She does not harm Dido as Juno would the Trojan prince.
Detached from the Trojans's distress and the goddesses's passions, Jupiter assures Venus that all is going to be well for her son. He delivers the first major prophecy in the Aeneid, a forecast of Rome's national glory. This prophetic vision will be mirrored by the ghost of Anchises, Aeneas's father, when he meets Aeneas in the underworld in Book VI, at the poem's halfway point, and again by Jupiter near the very end of the epic, when the king of the gods tells Juno about Rome's future greatness.
Whereas we typically think of divinities as sources of security and order, Virgil's gods and goddesses — especially Juno — create chaos in an already disordered human world that Aeneas constantly strives to bring to order. Throughout Book I, Virgil emphasizes the continual cause/effect relationship between Aeneas and the deities: Aeolus causes winds to pummel the Trojan ships, and many ships are lost; Neptune causes the winds to dissipate, and Aeneas heads for the nearest shore — which just happens to be near Carthage; and Venus causes Dido to fall instantly and completely in love with Aeneas, who will then languish in Carthage longer than he should.
Against this chaotic backdrop, Aeneas never loses sight of his goal — except temporarily in Carthage — to found a new Trojan state and establish order in his and his countrymen's lives. The theme of order versus disorder is evident in many seemingly unimportant remarks that Virgil makes. For example, when Aeneas anchors his boat off the Carthaginian shore, Virgil writes that he does so "longing for the firm earth underfoot." Aeneas feels more secure on land — a symbol of order — than on sea — a symbol of disorder.
Insignificant tasks assume greater importance than they normally would because they represent the ordered state that Aeneas seeks. When the Trojans land on Libyan shores, one of their first actions is to prepare a meal. Virgil draws noticeable attention to how they set about this task: "They skinned the deer, bared ribs and viscera, / Then one lot sliced the flesh and skewered it / On spits, all quivering, while others filled / Bronze cooking pots and tended the beach fires." The Trojans work together, each group of crewmen performing a specified task that, when joined with the other crewmen's tasks, ensures an ordered outcome, even if what is being performed is only the usually mundane cooking of a meal.
Lest we feel that Virgil is more concerned with gods than humans, he provides a well-rounded portrait of his Trojan hero. Almost all of Aeneas's major roles are presented by the end of Book I. His shooting seven stags — one for each of the remaining ships — highlights his role as provider to his people. He is both comforter and motivator when he addresses his companions, rousing their spirits and reminding them that fate has decreed their success. And twice Virgil draws attention to how good a father Aeneas is to Ascanius, describing him as "father Aeneas" and "fond father, as always thoughtful of his son."
The most important role Aeneas assumes is that of dutiful servant of fate and of the gods, entirely faithful to attaining his goal. The epic's opening lines attest to this character trait: Aeneas is "a man apart, devoted to his mission." Later in Book I, Virgil calls him "the dedicated man," and when Aeneas introduces himself to Dido, he describes himself as "duty-bound." Ironically, the more afflicted he is, the greater is his trust in destiny. For example, when he first sees the temple Dido built to honor Juno, "Here for the first time he took heart to hope / For safety, and to trust his destiny more / Even in affliction." No matter how often he feels unfairly treated, he never loses faith in the will of fate.
Had Virgil been satisfied with portraying his hero as the perfect man, afraid of nothing and ideally successful, we would be left with a one-dimensional caricature, a cardboard cutout that was merely an allegorical representation of human virtues. However, Virgil wisely adds human traits and faults to Aeneas's character in order to make him more real, more than just a symbol. For example, when Aeneas, a man capable of human feelings, views the panels in Juno's temple that depict scenes from the Trojan War, the murals bring tears to his eyes as he surveys likenesses of his companions who died in the war. Earlier, when he addressed his distressed countrymen prior to their eating on the shore, he was as "burdened and sick at heart" as his companions. However, his duty as the Trojan leader forbids him to show the insecurity that he feels, which in turn increases his stature as a hero and our favorable opinion of him.
Book I also introduces Dido, one of the poem's three main characters. The portrait that Virgil presents of the Carthaginian queen rivals Aeneas's, although later in the poem our opinion of her will slightly lessen. In Book I, her stature is as noble as her Trojan counterpart, in part due to the similarities between the two. Like Aeneas, Dido fled her homeland under the most trying of circumstances. The story of Dido's personal history, which increases our sympathy for her, rivals the account Aeneas will relate in the following books for its exemplum of noble suffering. Aeneas notes longingly the building of Dido's city, and especially the laws that ensure order in Carthaginian society, an order that he himself so desperately wants for his own people. When we meet the queen, Virgil compares her to the goddess Diana, the great huntress; when Aeneas materializes from the cloud that his mother has shrouded him in, his head and shoulders appear "noble as a god's." And finally, Aeneas notes that Dido is a fair and just ruler of her people, as he himself strives to be. Both characters represent the best of their races. Unfortunately, their relationship is doomed from the start, partly because of Juno and Venus's manipulation of them, and because Aeneas cannot be waylaid indefinitely from his rightful destiny.
Virgil did not invent the episode of Aeneas's visit to Carthage, but it appears likely that the fateful encounter between the hero and Dido, their passionate attachment, and his eventual god-ordained abandonment of her are essentially Virgil's own creation. In an earlier legend recorded by the Greek writer Timaeus, Dido commits suicide rather than marry her suitor, Iarbas, the king whose prayers in Book IV of the Aeneid alert Jupiter to Aeneas's overextending his stay in Carthage. According to another legend, which was adopted by Varro, a writer of the first century B.C., it was Dido's sister, Anna, who killed herself for love of Aeneas. Virgil reshapes these stories to provide a tragic and poignant explanation for the enmity that existed between Carthage and Rome.